6. THE AIR
There are no animals thoroughly aerial, but many insects spend much of their adult life in the free air, and the swift hardly pauses in its flight from dawn to dusk of the long summer day, alighting only for brief moments at the nest to deliver insects to the young. All the active life of bats certainly deserves to be called aerial.
The air was the last haunt of life to be conquered, and it is interesting to inquire what the conquest implied. (1) It meant transcending the radical difficulty of terrestrial life which confines the creatures of the dry land to moving on one plane, the surface of the earth. But the power of flight brought its possessors back to the universal freedom of movement which water animals enjoy. When we watch a sparrow rise into the air just as the cat has completed her stealthy stalking, we see that flight implies an enormous increase of safety. (2) The power of flight also opened up new possibilities of following the prey, of exploring new territories, of prospecting for water. (3) Of great importance too was the practicability of placing the eggs and the young, perhaps in a nest, in some place inaccessible to most enemies. When one thinks of it, the rooks' nests swaying on the tree-tops express the climax of a brilliant experiment. (4) The crowning advantage was the possibility of migrating, of conquering time (by circumventing the arid summer and the severe winter) and of conquering space (by passing quickly from one country to another and sometimes almost girdling the globe). There are not many acquisitions that have meant more to their possessors than the power of flight. It was a key opening the doors of a new freedom.
The problem of flight, as has been said in a previous chapter, has been solved four times, and the solution has been different in each case. The four solutions are those offered by insects, extinct Pterodactyls, birds, and bats. Moreover, as has been pointed out, there have been numerous attempts at flight which remain glorious failures, notably the flying fishes, which take a great leap and hold their pectoral fins taut; the Flying Tree-Toad, whose webbed fingers and toes form a parachute; the Flying Lizard (Draco volans), which has its skin pushed out on five or six greatly elongated mobile ribs; and various "flying" mammals, e.g. Flying Phalangers and Flying Squirrels, which take great swooping leaps from tree to tree.
The wings of an insect are hollow flattened sacs which grow out from the upper parts of the sides of the second and third rings of the region called the thorax. They are worked by powerful muscles, and are supported, like a fan, by ribs of chitin, which may be accompanied by air-tubes, blood-channels, and nerves. The insect's body is lightly built and very perfectly aerated, and the principle of the insect's flight is the extremely rapid striking of the air by means of the lightly built elastic wings. Many an insect has over two hundred strokes of its wings in one second. Hence, in many cases, the familiar hum, comparable on a small scale to that produced by the rapidly revolving blades of an aeroplane's propeller. For a short distance a bee can outfly a pigeon, but few insects can fly far, and they are easily blown away or blown back by the wind. Dragon-flies and bees may be cited as examples of insects that often fly for two or three miles. But this is exceptional, and the usual shortness of insect flight is an important fact for man since it limits the range of insects like house-flies and mosquitoes which are vehicles of typhoid fever and malaria respectively. The most primitive insects (spring-tails and bristle-tails) show no trace of wings, while fleas and lice have become secondarily wingless. It is interesting to notice that some insects only fly once in their lifetime, namely, in connection with mating. The evolution of the insect's wing remains quite obscure, but it is probable that insects could run, leap, and parachute before they could actually fly.
The extinct Flying Dragons or Pterodactyls had their golden age in the Cretaceous era, after which they disappeared, leaving no descendants. A fold of skin was spread out from the sides of the body by the enormously elongated outermost finger (usually regarded as corresponding to our little finger); it was continued to the hind-legs and thence to the tail.
It is unlikely that the Pterodactyls could fly far, for they have at most a weak keel on their breast-bone; on the other hand, some of them show a marked fusion of dorsal vertebræ, which, as in flying birds, must have served as a firm fulcrum for the stroke of the wings. The quaint creatures varied from the size of a sparrow up to a magnificent spread of 15-20 feet from tip to tip of the wings. They were the largest of all flying creatures.
The bird's solution of the problem of flight, which will be discussed separately, is centred in the feather, which forms a coherent vane for striking the air. In Pterodactyl and bat the wing is a web-wing or patagium, and a small web is to be seen on the front side of the bird's wing. But the bird's patagium is unimportant, and the bird's wing is on an evolutionary tack of its own—a fore-limb transformed for bearing the feathers of flight. Feathers are in a general way comparable to the scales of reptiles, but only in a general way, and no transition stage is known between the two. Birds evolved from a bipedal Dinosaur stock, as has been noticed already, and it is highly probable that they began their ascent by taking running leaps along the ground, flapping their scaly fore-limbs, and balancing themselves in kangaroo-like fashion with an extended tail. A second chapter was probably an arboreal apprenticeship, during which they made a fine art of parachuting—a persistence of which is to be seen in the pigeon "gliding" from the dovecot to the ground. It is in birds that the mastery of the air reaches its climax, and the mysterious "sailing" of the albatross and the vulture is surely the most remarkable locomotor triumph that has ever been achieved. Without any apparent stroke of the wings, the bird sails for half an hour at a time with the wind and against the wind, around the ship and in majestic spirals in the sky, probably taking advantage of currents of air of different velocities, and continually changing energy of position into energy of motion as it sinks, and energy of motion into energy of position as it rises. It is interesting to know that some dragon-flies are also able to "sail."
The web-wing of bats involves much more than the fore-arm. The double fold of skin begins on the side of the neck, passes along the front of the arm, skips the thumb, and is continued over the elongated palm-bones and fingers to the sides of the body again, and to the hind-legs, and to the tail if there is a tail. It is interesting to find that the bones of the bat's skeleton tend to be lightly built as in birds, that the breast-bone has likewise a keel for the better insertion of the pectoral muscles, and that there is a solidifying of the vertebræ of the back, affording as in birds a firm basis for the wing action. Such similar adaptations to similar needs, occurring in animals not nearly related to one another, are called "convergences," and form a very interesting study. In addition to adaptations which the bat shares with the flying bird, it has many of its own. There are so many nerve-endings on the wing, and often also on special skin-leaves about the ears and nose, that the bat flying in the dusk does not knock against branches or other obstacles. Some say that it is helped by the echoes of its high-pitched voice, but there is no doubt as to its exquisite tactility. That it usually produces only a single young one at a time is a clear adaptation to flight, and similarly the sharp, mountain-top-like cusps on the back teeth are adapted in insectivorous bats for crunching insects.
Whether we think of the triumphant flight of birds, reaching a climax in migration, or of the marvel that a creature of the earth—as a mammal essentially is—should evolve such a mastery of the air as we see in bats, or even of the repeated but splendid failures which parachuting animals illustrate, we gain an impression of the insurgence of living creatures in their characteristic endeavour after fuller well-being.
We have said enough to show how well adapted many animals are to meet the particular difficulties of the haunt which they tenant. But difficulties and limitations are ever arising afresh, and so one fitness follows on another. It is natural, therefore, to pass to the frequent occurrence of protective resemblance, camouflage, and mimicry—the subject of the next article.