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Evolution of bird flight

I'm Vikram Baliga, I'm a postdoc in UBC Zoology and the Biodiversity Research Centre. I'm in the Altshuler lab here at UBC, and we study the biomechanics of bird flight, so how birds get from point A to point B, and how they use their wings to do that.

I'm interested in in the relationship between form and function, and how that really changes across different groups of animals. Right now I'm super interested in birds, and the evolution of bird flight. When you see a bird fly around every day, it's not just flying with straight wings but actually is able to kind of morph its wings, and adjust to different tasks on the fly. I wanted to see how that varies across wide arrays of bird species. So I'm looking at the relationship between styles of flight, and sizes of birds, versus its ability to morph or its range of motion in the wings.

As somebody who's interested in biomechanics, I love studying animal behavior, too. As a PhD student I studied the evolution of what we call 'cleaning behavior' in fishes. So basically these little species of fishes that go around and hunt ectoparasites off the bodies of other animals. And for decades people hadn't really known how this behavior occurs, how the jaws move, and that sort of stuff, and it was because these fishes move so fast, and their jaws move so fast. I remember the first time in the lab where I was able to devise this very controlled setup, and get the cleaner fish exactly in the right position and record its jaw movements in high speed. It was super super gratifying, it was great to see it in great detail.

From a purely biomechanical perspective I really love animals that are super versatile, and my favourite one—at least at the moment—is the belted kingfisher, because it can do all kinds of crazy behaviors. It can hover in place and it can see a fish in a pond and just dive down into the water grab the fish and come back out and fly around. That is just crazy versatile.

Just from a perspective of what an animal can do, stuff like that really entrances me. At the same time I also really love having a deep personal connection with animals, especially the ones that that have been in my life, and so I also have to say dogs, just because I love every dog that I've ever met, to be honest.

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Vikram morphing wings to determine range of motion.

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