How Pterosaurs Worked

Pterosaur Flight

For years, researchers doubted pterosaurs' flying abilities, but we now know just how well their strong arms and lightweight wings helped launch them through the sky.
For years, researchers doubted pterosaurs' flying abilities, but we now know just how well their strong arms and lightweight wings helped launch them through the sky.
Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library/Corbis

It's hard to imagine any animal the size of a giraffe getting off the ground and staying airborne for very long. After all, birds and bats are nowhere near that big! But when it comes to pterosaurs, forget what you know about modern fliers. These flying reptiles, which took to the skies some 80 million years before our feathered and fuzzy friends, had their own strategies for launching into the air and soaring above the prehistoric earth [source: Habib]. And, it turns out, they were actually pretty good at it.

As we mentioned before, pterosaur wings consisted of a membrane stretched between the legs, arms and an especially long fourth finger. The wing bones — hollow and as thin as a playing card — were incredibly lightweight and flexible, but also very strong. They supported the skin and muscle membrane, which was reinforced by long fibers that ran from front to back. This system allowed pterosaurs to adjust the tension and shape of their wings for maximum flying ability [source: American Museum of Natural History].

But how did they get off the ground? Like modern bats and birds, pterosaurs didn't just start flapping their wings to get airborne; they had to launch themselves into the air first and then engage the wings. At first, paleontologists figured they must have jumped off their hind legs because that's what birds do. However, further research into pterosaur anatomy revealed that these creatures' arms were actually stronger than their legs – exactly the opposite of birds. This, coupled, with new findings that they were quadrupedal (walked on all fours), suggested that pterosaurs also used all four limbs to catapult themselves into the air. More limbs meant more power, giving even the largest pterosaurs some serious ups [source: Vogel].

This takeoff strategy, despite being more than 200 million years old, has recently gained the attention of the United States Department of Defense. Working with a pterosaur researcher, they're hoping to develop an aircraft system that could allow pilots to make quick vertical launches or take off without a lot of fuel. If they're ever able to make this work, flight will really have gone full-circle: from the first flying vertebrates to the latest aircraft technology [source: Sneed].

Author's Note: How Pterosaurs Worked

Like almost every little boy of my generation, I loved dinosaurs. I liked reading about them, visiting museums about them and wearing them on my T-shirts. My mom said I was basically a walking dinosaur encyclopedia, ready to spout off the length and time period for every species from Tyrannosaurus rex to Brachiosaurus. Imagine my surprise, while researching this article, to find out that pterosaurs weren't actually dinosaurs. I didn't even use the right name, mistakenly calling them "pterodactyls" instead. Little me would have been disappointed but glad to have this opportunity to set the record straight — and have someone besides Mom listening to him go on about prehistoric reptiles.

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