Earthbound: How Birds Become Flightless

The wonderful diversity of flightless bird species, their evolution, and their conservation.

August 2, 2023

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Earthbound: How Birds Become Flightless


This episode all about flightless birds, and about the evolutionary processes that lead to flightlessness.

Flightlessness in birds is, in my opinion, a fascinating scientific topic. And so here we are with this episode.

Alive on the planet today, there are about 60 bird species that can’t fly. That’s only about 0.54 percent of the world’s approximately 11,000 species.

It turns out there were way more flightless bird species out there before humans started exploring and colonizing every corner of the Earth. It wasn’t just the Dodo that was killed off by people.

In today’s episode, we’ll look at the wonderful diversity of flightless bird species—in both the present and the past.

We’ll also talk about conservation and—perhaps the most interesting thing—the evolutionary process that leads to flightlessness. How does this weird thing happen in nature? What causes a bird species to give up its greatest superpower?

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Research Citations


Flightless Cormorant (Nannopterum harrisi) in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Photo by Ellen Goff/Danita Delimont/Adobe.
Kakapo (Strigops habroptila) in New Zealand. Photo by NZ Dept of Conservation/Wikimedia.
Falkland Steamer-Duck (Tachyeres brachypterus) in Argentina. Photo by David/Adobe.
Titicaca Grebe (Rollandia microptera) in Peru. Photo by Ivan Phillipsen.
Guam Rail (Gallirallus owstoni). Photo by Greg Hume/Wikimedia.
White-throated Rail, flightless subspecies (Dryolimnas cuvieri aldabranus). Photo by Janos/Adobe.
Weka (Gallirallus australis). Photo by JJ Harrison/Wikimedia.
Jalca Tapaculo (Scytalopus frankeae) in Peru. Photo by JairoAlexander/Adobe.

This work by Ivan Phillipsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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