Pterosaurs haven't soared for 67 million years, but they can still teach us about flight
Once the massive reptiles were off the ground, they could sustain slow yet powered flight
Pterosaurs, the largest animals ever to fly, could help researchers solve modern flight problems, according to scientists from the University of Bristol.
Pterosaurs first appeared more than 200 million years ago and dominated the skies until the mass extinction 66 million years ago. The largest species had individuals that weighed anywhere from 250 to 300 kilograms, complete with a 10 to 11-metre wingspan.
Yet the pterosaur seems to have been overlooked by those who turn to biology for inspiration in achieving better and more efficient flight — modern birds and insects get all the attention.
But research led by Liz Martin-Silverstone, a post-doctoral researcher and paleontologist at England's University of Bristol, is meant to get the pterosaur a little more credit for its ability to fly. The researchers are making close examinations of the fossil evidence of bone structure as well as fossil wing membranes to see if there is useful information to glean from it.
The legs of the largest pterosaurs, relative to their huge bodies, were tiny. Their arms, embedded in the base of the animals' wings, may have been critical for helping some of the larger pterosaurs off the ground.
Researchers have argued that some large pterosaurs launched themselves into the air, not unlike a pole vaulter.
Fossil evidence suggests that pterosaur wing membranes — as well as their strong wing muscles — may have allowed them to make a high-powered leap off their elbows and wrists into the air in what is called a "ballistic launch."
Understanding the mechanics of such a launch could be helpful in getting drones, especially larger ones, off the ground and into the air from unstable terrain.
Once pterosaurs were off the ground, they could sustain slow yet powered flight.
But Martin-Silverstone believes that because of their large size, the pterosaurs must have evolved ways to avoid unstable flight due to wing flutter.
Understanding more about the structure of the wing membranes may help modern aircraft engineers design improved wings for larger aircraft.
Martin-Silverstone suggests that, in general, we should be looking back at fossils more often to solve mechanical engineering issues today. Fossils of other ancient flyers could provide insight into some of the problems that still plague man-made flight.