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.
- American Museum of Natural History. "Flying Colors: Pterosaurs' Crests." May 13, 2014. (Feb. 10, 2015) http://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/flying-colors-pterosaurs-crests
- American Museum of Natural History. "How did Pterosaurs Fly?" (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/pterosaurs-flight-in-the-age-of-dinosaurs/how-did-pterosaurs-fly
- American Museum of Natural History. "Pterosaur of the Day: Pterodaustro." March 31, 2014. (Feb. 10, 2015) http://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/pterosaur-of-the-day-pterodaustro
- American Museum of Natural History. "Why are Pterosaur Fossils Rare?" (Feb. 9, 2015) http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/pterosaurs-flight-in-the-age-of-dinosaurs/why-are-pterosaur-fossils-rare
- Castro, Joseph. "Pterodactyl, Pteranodon & Other Flying 'Dinosaurs.'" Live Science. Jan. 26, 2015. (Feb. 11, 2015) http://www.livescience.com/24071-pterodactyl-pteranodon-flying-dinosaurs.html
- Habib, Mike. "Pterosaur Flight." Pterosaur.net. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://pterosaur.net/flight.php
- Hutchinson, John R. and Dave Smith. "Vertebrate Flight: Avian Flight." University of California Museum of Paleontology. Dec. 15, 1995. (Feb. 11, 2015) http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/vertebrates/flight/aves.html
- Monastersky, Richard. "Pterosaurs – Lords of the Ancient Skies." National Geographic. (Feb. 10, 2015) http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/pterosaurs/#page=1
- Naish, Darren. "Myths and Misconceptions." Pterosaur.net. (Feb. 10, 2015) http://pterosaur.net/myths.php
- National Park Service. "A Paleontological Paradise." (Feb. 12, 2015) http://www.nps.gov/bibe/naturescience/dino.htm
- National Park Service. "Pterosaurs." (Feb. 12, 2015) http://www.nps.gov/bibe/naturescience/pterosaur.htm
- Sneed, Annie. "Giant Pterosaurs Serve as Aircraft Inspiration." Scientific American. July 15, 2014. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/giant-pterosaurs-serve-as-aircraft-inspiration/
- Switek, Brian. "New Golden Age for Pterosaurs, Flying Reptiles of the Dinosaur Era." National Geographic. April 5, 2014. (Feb. 9, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140405-pterosaur-flying-reptile-museum-exhibit-paleontology-science/
- Switek, Brian. "Why a Pterosaur is Not a Dinosaur." Smithsonian.com. Nov. 18, 2010. (Feb. 9, 2015) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-a-pterosaur-is-not-a-dinosaur-87082921/
- Taquet, Philippe and Kevin Padian. "The Earliest Known Restoration of a Pterosaur and the Philosophical Origins of Cuvier's Ossemens Fossiles." Comptes Rendus Palevol. Vol. 3. Issue 2. March 2004.
- Than, Ker. "Mother Pterosaurs Laid Soft Eggs, New Fossil Hints." National Geographic News. Jan. 20, 2011. (Feb. 9, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/01/110120-pterosaurs-eggs-mother-shells-crests-darwinopterus-animals-science/
- Unwin, David M. "The Pterosaurs: From Deep Time." Pi Press. Aug. 25, 2005.
- Vogel, Gretchen. "Launch Limit for Pterosaur Flight." Science. Nov. 10, 2014. (Feb. 13, 2015) http://news.sciencemag.org/paleontology/2014/11/launch-limit-pterosaur-flight
- Witton, Mark P. "Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy." Princeton University Press. June 23, 2013.
- Witton, Mark P. "Why Pterosaurs Weren't So Scary After All." The Guardian. Aug. 10, 2013. (Feb. 9, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/aug/11/pterosaurs-fossils-research-mark-witton
- Witton, Mark P. and Darren Naish. "A Reappraisal of Azhdarchid Pterosaur Functional Morphology and Paleoecology." PLoS ONE. May 28, 2008. (Feb. 12, 2015) http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0002271
- Woollaston, Victoria and Sarah Griffiths. "An Eggs-traordinary Find! Ancient Reptile Fossils Shed Light on How Mysterious Pterosaurs Nested like Modern-day Birds." Daily Mail. June 5, 2014. (Feb. 9, 2015) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2649707/An-egg-traordinary-Ancient-reptile-eggs-shed-light-mysterious-Pterosaurs-nested-like-modern-day-birds.html