Zeal Monachorum Online

flying and airy stuff

First Hang Gliders

Daedalus the inventor built two pairs of wings so that he and his son, Icarus, could escape by flying from their Labyrinth prison. Despite his father's warnings, Icarus flew too near the sun and the wax holding his wings melted. He fell into the sea below and drowned. If only they'd had a classical education they'd have known this would happen.

First Fliers

Insects were the first animals to fly. It happened sometime during the Carboniferous, when the coal swamps were being laid down. These first, stiff wings might have been used for gliding. The fossil record is thin, but by 300 million years ago air was truly colonised.

Big Fliers

The little, wingless insects of 400 million years ago which evolved real wings, gradually became huge, as did the trees and animal species which were their contemporaries. A dragonfly with a three-foot wingspan left a trace of its living in the organic mass which would become coal.

Birds and Reptiles

Famous "first bird", Archaeopteryx, lived about 170 million years ago. It was pidgeon-sized. Flying reptiles were commoner than birds in the Jurassic/Cretaceous skies; they had a vast size-range. With the dinosaurs gone, about 100 million years later, birds and mammals diversified.

Flying Squirrels

Flying squirrels don't really fly, but their way of gliding looks like flying. They use a muscular membrane of skin which extends on both sides of the body from forelimb to hindlimb. Tails are for steering. Some species can "fly" for a distance of 1000 feet. Squirrels are mammals and rodents.

Flying Snakes

Flying snakes don't really fly either. They live in trees in South and Southeast Asia, and glide or parachute through the air from tree to tree or tree to ground. Manoevring their bodies, they get good flight control. They've been seen aloft for a few seconds, but might achieve much longer flights.

Flightless Birds

After the dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago, one of the birds to evolve giantism and lose flight was Diatryma, which hunted mammal herbivores. They were nine-feet high. In modern times (post glacial) grounded birds of all sizes existed; larger ones were first to be hunted to extinction. Ostrich are the biggest of the survivors.

Getting Airborne

Flying's a good way to get around: to find food, a mate, or to escape predators. First fliers were small and light, which helped. Some big animals did get airborne, but weren't built for speed. When Man got here the large mammals and birds, whether flightless or not, were the proverbial sitting ducks.

Flying Mammals

Bats are the only mammals to truly fly. They are night-flyers; very few birds are. Bats navigate by echolocation, based on sound waves. Using vibrations between 50-200,000 per second bats can precisely locate objects, including fast-flying prey.

Intelligent Birds

Back in the Dark Ages when I was a student, it was thought that birds were stupid since so much of a bird's brain must be given to flight. A lot has been learned in recent decades. Birds can reason, remember, count, use tools, have spacial memory and, in the case of a parrot, hold complex conversations.

Silent Flight

The aerodynamics used in aeroplane design are the same as those used by birds in flight. Differences are: they "know" without, as far as we can understand, "knowing that they know"; they don't pollute and use aviation fuel; the sound of their flight offends no laws on noise pollution.

Fastest Bird

Accounts vary, but it seems to be the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), who reached the speed of 270 miles per hour during a dive. The spine-tailed swift (Zoonavena thomensis) exceeds 100 mph at level flight. The ostrich (Struthio camelus) can run at 50 mph.

Long Haul

Arctic tern chicks (Sterna paradisaea) will travel c10.000 miles within weeks of hatching. Wideawake or sooty terns (Sterna fuscata) are believed to remain airborne for three or four years after fledging.

Atmosphere Then

Helium, hydrogen, ammonia and methane (probably) made up Earth's atmosphere when it formed 4.6 billion years ago. Next, constant volcanism produced an atmosphere of water vapour, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Between 2.6-1.6 billion years ago, came the first oxygen.

Atmosphere Now

Our present atmosphere is largely made of nitrogen (c78%) and oxygen (c21%). During its history Earth has seen great changes in oxygen levels. Life on land wasn't possible until sufficient oxygen and ozone was present, 500 million years ago. A change of more than 1.5% either way in the level of oxygen would make our species unviable.

Fastest Primate

Patas monkeys (Erythrocebus patas) have been recorded maintaining speeds of 34 miles per hour while running. The fastest human primates have touched 26.5 miles per hour during a sprint, but only briefly.

Very First Flyer

Recent (February 2004) research suggests that flight had evolved by 400 million years ago, only 100 million years after land-life began. Though Rhyniognatha has no preserved wings, its advanced jaw is not found in wingless insects. It's thought that the then recent growth of 100-foot tall plants provided an opportunity for insect flight, maybe initially by gliding or jumping.


One thought is that the Nasa jet which reached 14,000 miles per hour, will be developed for public use in the first quarter of the C21st. An alternative is that when overpopulation uses up the fuel resources which makes "civilisations" possible, we'll be back in the Stone Age. By the way, that Nasa jet had no occupant or pilot, flew for 10 seconds and fell to the ocean bed.

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greenfinch perching
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bluetit perching
bluetit taking off
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adult male bullfinch
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Butterfly on sunflower
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rock pippit
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