Physics meets paleontology: the hotly debated mechanics of pterosaur flight

Julius Cisotoni

A group of researchers recently made a surprising discovery.

Using an innovative imaging technique, an international team of scientists has uncovered remarkable details of a pterosaur’s soft tissue. Despite being around 145–163 million years old, the wing membrane and the webbing between both legs managed to survive fossilization.

With the new data, the team used modeling to determine whether this tiny pterosaur had the ability to launch itself out of water. Their findings are published in Scientific Reports.

fine detail

Pterosaurs – an extinct type of winged reptile – were the first known vertebrates to take to the air and fly. Their sizes ranged from very small (wings of 25 cm) to downright huge (with a breathtaking 10- to 11-metre wingspan). According to Dr. Michael Pittman, the lead researcher of the new work, the tiny aurorazhdarchid studied could have fit in the palm of your hand. Of 12 well-preserved pterosaurs from the Solnhofen Lagoon in Germany, it was the only one with preserved soft tissues.

Dr. Pittman is a paleobiologist and assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and co-author Dr. Thomas G. Kaye with the Foundation for Scientific Advancement. The authors noted that this pterosaur is now one of only six known pterosaurs with evidence of webbed feet and about 30 fins with membranes.

“We are constantly amazed at how amazingly preserved details can be,” Dr. Pittman told Ars, “which keeps getting better and better as the technology gets more and more sophisticated.”

The ability to detect these soft tissues and bring them into sharp relief via laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) is relatively new. LSF is a non-destructive imaging technique taken to new levels by Dr. Pittman and Dr. Kaye.

“As part of a larger, ongoing project,” said Dr. Pittman, “we are using LSF to reveal otherwise hidden soft tissues preserved in fossils. To better understand feathered dinosaurs and pterosaurs.” An important focus has been to use LSF to understand biology and flight evolution.”

ready to fly?

In this case, understanding the biology of pterosaurs involved determining whether this Late Jurassic creature could sail away from water. Just because the pterosaur had tentacles on its feet, the researchers stress, doesn’t mean it spent time in the water, nor does it imply that it could jump out of the water if it fell.

The work was incredibly difficult and potentially controversial. It is one thing to try to determine locomotion in animals whose skeletons exist today; It is a completely different matter when that creature has no modern analogue.

“There is a lot of debate about pterosaurs in general, about every aspect of their biology,” Dr. Armita Manafzadeh told Ars. “And there’s additional debate over their joints because they’re so quirky.”

Skeleton and associated soft tissue of the aurorazhdarchid pterosaur fossil.
in great shape , Skeleton and associated soft tissue of the aurorazhdarchid pterosaur fossil.

Dr. Manafzadeh, who was not involved in this research, is a Donnelly Postdoctoral Fellow and NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies. His work is called “arthology”: understanding joints, joint function, and movement in both extant and extinct species.

To trace the movement of extinct animals, she said, “what do you think the animal was capable of, and that has its own challenges.”

“But you also have to find out what the animal did out of the range of this ability? really Do it when she was alive,” she said. “It might be capable of doing it, but that doesn’t mean she did it.”

The team looked to Dr. Michael Habib, a self-described pterosaur aeromechanics expert and one of only four people on the planet with that expertise, to help them analyze how these soft tissue reptiles were able to fly and launch. How can it affect the ability to Dr. Habib has studied birds and pterosaurs for years, and his unique knowledge base of physics, aerodynamics, and paleontology makes his insights particularly relevant. The launch model used in this paper was an extension of work done by Dr Habib and his colleague in 2010 to help determine whether large pterosaurs would be capable of launching from water. He is a research associate with the National History Museum of Los Angeles and an assistant associate professor of medicine at UCLA.

“I work on animal biomechanics and flight origins,” Dr. “But I invited Dr. Mike Habib on the project because of his unique expertise on pterosaur flight, which enabled the team to deliver the results we found,” Pittman said.

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