In this answer on aviation.SE a comparison is made between the shapes of airplanes wings and the shapes of birds wings. It concludes with the following remark:

After all, no bird has winglets. Not a single one.

In addition to be a disputable assertion (the wing tips such as the eagle's could be considered akin to a "winglet" of the fanned type) this has stricken me as based on a quite wrong assumption of how evolution works.

I tried to make my point in the comments only to reach this point:

So you consider evolved wings as not mature. The winglet modification is just waiting to happen? Nature never tried it, in >100 million years of biological flight? Could be, yes. But is extremely unlikely. That settles it for me.

Am I correct in identifying this in a wrong interpretation of the evolutionary process?

As I understand the evolutionary process, the current bird wings are not necessarily perfect, are simply the version that so far has given the best advantage. The lack of "winglets" in birds cannot then be explained simply by assuming that they do not improve the wing, but it could also be that there has never been an evolutionary pressure to evolve them or that since birds flap their wings they would be detrimental instead of beneficial or whatever other reason.

Is my understanding of the evolutionary process correct? if not, where am I at fault?

As a small addendum, another user cited the "Spandrels" in comparison to the above debate, could someone explain what could have been the meaning of the comparison?

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    $\begingroup$ Planes have wing dimensions and velocity at least an order of magnitude greater than birds, so the physics is different. In order to make a like-for like comparison, the plane wing would have to be placed in a wind tunnel with a fluid of much higher kinematic viscosity than air, which would supress wingtip vortices considerably. For more info google Reynolds Number. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ there is always a evolutionary need, there is competition for food, escaping from predators quicker etc. if its advantageous and there is any natural selection, theres a evolutionary need. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2014 at 18:27

3 Answers 3


I looked up winglets so I had context for this answer. I'm interpreting winglets as the vertical tips at the end of airplane wings. If so, then you are correct. The spread primary feathers of soaring birds like eagles function as winglets (Tucker 1993). Airbus has a biomimicry web page devoted to some of the biological designs, including winglets, they incorporated into their airplane designs. Some studies suggest airplant winglets do increase efficiency (e.g., Hossain et al. 2011), but there is still some debate.

From the aviation.se answer:

Look at birds: They use two different wingtip designs. I guess we will both agree that those designs are mature after millions of years of evolution. And still there are two distinct wing tip shapes: One is the "fingered" wingtip with large, spread-out feathers, and one is the pointed tip you find from seagulls to albatrosses. Why is there not one, mature design?

This has to do with the environment they are used in. Seabirds fly in an unobstructed environment with steady winds and need to stay aloft for longer duration. All other birds have to cope with trees obstructing a straight flight path and gusts from hills, or those trees. They need to maneuver quickly and cope with gusty winds. This is helped by a reduced span and the possibility to fold the outer wing in or fan it out in an instance. Hence the fingered wingtip.

Although bird wings do tend to match his descriptions, he is not correct that these correspond entirely to ocean-going birds vs all other birds. Many inland birds have pointed wings, including swallows, nightjars, swifts, and falcons. Some seagoing birds have winglets, such as pelicans and cormorants. While wing type is shaped by natural selection in a given environment, it also reflects the evolutionary history of the birds.

There is not "one, mature design" because wings many different shapes and sizeshave evolved under varying selective pressures. For example, the long pointed wings of ocean-going albatrosses are excellent for gliding with little energy expenditure but they are lousy for taking flight or for landing. Other wings are shorter and broader, providing greater maneuverability in the woods. In this sense, there is no perfect wing. Each has evolved for different evolutionary reasons.

The main question

From the aviation.SE thread:

the fact that no random mutation has produced a winglet* in birds is in no way a demonstration that airplanes do not benefit from them, there is no logical relationship. [*even though the "fanned" design you refer, such as the eagle's, can be considered a form of optimum winglet] – Federico

followed by this response:

So you consider evolved wings as not mature. The winglet modification is just waiting to happen? Nature never tried it, in >100 million years of biological flight? Could be, yes. But is extremely unlikely. That settles it for me...

Federico is correct. The basic wing type was set long ago as birds evolved from non-avian dinosaurs. Comparisons of modern bird wings with fossils suggest that the basic structure of bird wings has not changed very much since then. The current structure may be the best that has evolved by natural selection so far but that does not mean the wing cannot be improved further. As you noted, mutations could occur in existing genes that lead to further improvements of the structure and function of the wings. If those mutations never occur, then the improvements won't occur. This is one constraint of the evolutionary process (Hoffman 2014). Natural selection can only work with existing traits, using existing genes and genetic variation.

Another consideration is that wings for powered flight have evolved independently at least four times (birds, bats, insects, pterosaurs). Each time, a different type of wing evolved. Is one better than another? Bat wings have aerodynamic properties very different from birds but function very well for bats (Hedenstrom et al. 2009). Along the lines of your argument above, each wing type perhaps is (or was for pterosaurs) optimum given the environmental circumstances and evolutionary constraints. That doesn't mean they could not be improved. If a wing evolves again in some organismal group in the distant evolutionary future, odds are very good that the structure will be different from those that have evolved so far. Perhaps that wing will be even more efficient than current wings.


Another user cited the "Spandrels" in comparison to the above debate, could someone explain what could have been the meaning of the comparison?

The use of "spandrels" in evolutionary biology stems back to a well-known paper by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin called "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptionist programme", published in 1979 (Gould and Lewontin 1979). A spandrel is the space that forms between two adjacent arches or between an arch and a rectangular shape. The spandrel emerges as a result of putting two arches next to each other and filling the space. It results from the joining of two arches. It was not specifically designed as part of the arch. Gould and Lewontin claim that evolutionary biologists are too quick to assign adaptive value to every trait on an organism, and argue that not every trait results directly from adaptation. Instead, they say, the trait may be a "spandrel" that emerged as a by-product of other traits. The "spandrel trait" has no adaptive value in and of itself.

The use of spandrels in the comments of the aviation discussion is not clear to me. Clearly, the person intended the evolutionary meaning, mentioning the paper by name. But I cannot tell at all the person's intent.

Edits: Incorporated comments by @Federico and @Andrew - thanks. I corrected horrendous typos and attempted to add clarity.


Hedenstrom, A. et al. 2009. Bird or bat: comparing airframe design and flight performance. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics 4 015001. doi:10.1088/1748-3182/4/1/015001

Hoffmann, A.A. 2014. Evolutionary limits and constraints. Pp. 247-252. In: The Princeton Guide to Evolution, Princeton University Press, USA.

Hossain et al. 2011. Drag analysis of an aircraft wing model with and without bird feather like winglet. International Journal of Mechanical, Aerospace, Industrial and Mechatronics Engineering 5: 30-35.

Tucker, V.A. 1993. Gliding birds: Reducion of induced drag by wing tip slots between the primary feathers. Journal of Experimental Biology 180: 285-310.

  • $\begingroup$ thanks for the answer. As for the efficiency of the winglets, it severely depends on the constraints and is debated. And turbulence is an unavoidable byproduct of lift generation, so I guess birds will neve fly "wake-free". $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico I certainly don't pretend to understand the intricacies of aerodynamics. :) It's interesting how geese have evolved flying in a V formation to take advantage of lift provided from individuals closer to the front of the formation. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ I was not pretending you to, I simply pointed that out so that you can eventually review your answer to remove debatable points. I am aware of the formation flying of migrating birds, but the question/dabate was more focused on solitary ones. As for the "mature" remark, I guess it uses it in lieu of "whatever will happen, the shape won't change much" or "the current wing shape is the best possible one". $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ "...the long pointed wings of ocean-going albatrosses are excellent for gliding with little energy expenditure but they are lousy for taking flight". ...and landing, apparently. $\endgroup$
    – Andrew
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico I've modified my answer in light of your (and other) comments. I've also tried to add clarity and remove redundancy. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 23:35

The logical assertion "winglets have not happened in a long time, therefore they are not advantageous" is incorrect.

It is possible for an advantageous trait not to evolve even when advantageous, if there is no "path" to it. The trait only occurs gradually, in small incremental steps. If intermediary steps are harmful, the trait will not occur, even if the end result would be beneficial.

(now, this does not say anything specific about winglets, just about the general argument)

One famous example of an "imperfection" that keeps existing despite a better solution being available can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cO1a1Ek-HD0 (beware, video features dissection of a giraffe)

There is a nerve that connects the brain to the larinx. In fish, this nerve is somewhat short, but in the giraffe, it is enormous. The interesting thing is: the points this nerve connects are very near, even on the giraffe.

What happened was the the nerve passes below an artery. For fish, this is irrelevant. But, as larger mammals evolved, the nerve had to gradually grow to a bigger path. Evolution could not do the "reengeneering" to have a smaller nerve, because there was no immediately advantageous way to do it.

  • $\begingroup$ thanks, this is also the kind of review I was looking for. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ It is also possible that airplane-style winglets hinder more than they help on wings that need to be flapped. $\endgroup$
    – RomanSt
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 13:16

There are two possibilites with evolutionary processes: The development either never went into this direction or it brought no advantages. Besides this two possibilities the claims from the other forum are wrong. Birds (not all of them though) do have winglet-like structures. If you look at big birds, you can see feathers on the end of the wings looking like this:

enter image description here

enter image description here

These feather fulfill exactly the same purpose here. Some more information can be found here and also in the Wikipedia.

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    $\begingroup$ The Harun Yahya site is not the best site for reference. While his overview is correct, he has very strong creationist beliefs and very strong anti-evolutionary beliefs. He attributes to the design of bird wings to his god, not evolution. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ Ups. Thanks for noticing. I will look up another one. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ For the sake of openness, Chris, I did not intend to tell you what you should or should not include in your answer. That is up to you. I have strong opinions about including creationist ideas in evolutionary discussions though and that slipped through. I hope you accepted my comment in the positive spirit intended and not as a criticism. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeTaylor Don't worry. I welcome critic to my answers and comments - I don't see this as something negative but as a chance to get answers better or learn something. And I don't like to include creationism in evolution either as it is simply unscientific. So yes, your comment was very welcome since this simply slipped through. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 9:27

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