The world in a wing: the integrative biology of bat flight

Sharon Swartz
Dept of Ecology, Evolution, & Organismal Biology and School of Engineering 
Brown University
March 24th, 3:00 PM, 310 Kelly Hall

Insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats each evolved flight independently, and the ancestral body plan from which each lineage developed the capacity for powered flapping flight is distinct in morphology and materials. In bats, the flight apparatus achieves high levels of functional performance through many distinctive traits in wing structure, composition, and functional dynamics. Advancing knowledge of the origins and diversification of bat flight and wings is likely to benefit from a broader and more integrative understanding of wings than has been traditional. In this talk, I will present research findings that support this perspective by discussing the specialized and underappreciated nature of bat wings as appendages with key thermal, inertial, and sensory functions. I will discuss how integrating field and laboratory investigations can advance this research agenda in important ways, and argue for bringing biomechanics out into natural environments.

Sharon M. Swartz is Professor of Ecology, Evolution, & Organismal Biology and Engineering.  She received her B.A. in Biology and Sociology/Anthropology with High Honors from Oberlin College in 1981, and her M. S. (1986) and Ph. D. (1988) from the Committee on Evolutionary Biology of The University of Chicago. She joined the faculty at Northwestern University, with a joint appointment as Assistant Professor in the School of Medicine (Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy) and College of Arts and Sciences (Department of Anthropology) in 1987. In 1990, she became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and School of Engineering at Brown University, where she has been Professor since 2009.

Professor Swartz’ primary research interests are in the area of comparative biomechanics and animal locomotion, particularly animal flight. Her work aims to understand how the constituent tissues of wings – bone, tendon, muscle, and skin – are modified for the mechanical and aerodynamic demands of flight performance, especially in bats. To carry out this work, she integrates traditional and contemporary biological methods for studying animal structure with approaches and methods from engineering sciences. She brings these disciplines together to answer functional, evolutionary, and ecological questions.