Quirks & Quarks

Pterosaurs haven't soared for 67 million years, but they can still teach us about flight

Fossils of the pterosaur, the largest animal ever to fly, may be an untapped source of new information and modelling for those trying to improve human-made flight.

Once the massive reptiles were off the ground, they could sustain slow yet powered flight

This image shows a reconstruction of the giant pterosaur Hatzegopteryx launching into the air, just after the forelimbs have left the ground. (Mark Witton)
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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.

An amazingly well-preserved three-dimensional Anhanguera, another genus of pterosaur. The large, robust shoulder girdle bones were key to the animal’s ability to launch into flight. (Liz Martin-Silverstone)

'Ballistic launch'

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."

One of the best specimens of Pteranodon, a genus of pterosaur, preserved. It shows a nearly complete skeleton. (Liz Martin-Silverstone)
 

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. 

This small pterosaur ‘Darkwing’ Rhamphorhynchus has soft tissue of the membrane preserved, and has been extremely important in the understanding of how the membrane was structured. (Liz Martin-Silverstone)

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.

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