Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Pterosaurs: good fliers after all?

The debate in paleontology over how good the "flying reptiles" (pterosaurs) were at actual flying has been long-running and sometimes fierce. New analysis of a well-preserved specimen from China indicates that networks of unique fibers in the animals' wings gave them the kind of precise control birds have today.
COMMENT: I doubt this one find will settle things. Even if the early species in this study was a good flier, were later and larger (including some MUCH larger) pterosaurs equally capable, or were some mainly gliders? Either way, pterosaurs will maintain their hold on the human imagination. Flying vertebrates the size of aircraft have a way of doing that.


busterggi said...

Of course they were good fliers. Take a look at large birds that soar like turkey vultures - they need to be good fliers to get into the thermals before they can chill out & soar.

Matt Bille said...

Flying skill as evaluated in this article and my original comment referred mainly to manueverability. Vultures are good at the kind of flying they do: they know how to get airborne with a full gut when needed, and how to find and use thermals, but they can't do a high-speed stoop like a hawk or make quick, precise turns. This report indicates that pterosaurs were not limited to soaring-type flying, but that at least some of them could have specialized in a quick-maneuvering style of flight.
There's a lot we don't know about pterosaus in general: Dr. Darren Naish, for example, has argued that the conventional picture of big pterosaurs scooping up fish on the wing doesn't work because the animals' necks weren't built to flex and absorb the shock of dipping the head into (incompressible) water the way, say, a pelican's neck can.
Thanks for the comment.