Terrifying pterosaurs were fragile in flight

Nov 23, 2010
A mockup of a pterosaur. Pterosaurs, the largest creatures ever to take to the skies, were adept fliers in a balmy breeze but would have crashed in stormy weather, according to a study published Wednesday.

Pterosaurs, the largest creatures ever to take to the skies, were adept fliers in a balmy breeze but would have crashed in stormy weather, according to a study published Wednesday.

Evolutionary biologists have long puzzled over the aerodynamic abilities of the , which cohabited the planet with dinosaurs during the Mesozoic era 220 to 65 million years ago.

A few scientists have even suggested that pterosaurs, also known as pterodactyls, probably couldn't fly at all.

With a wingspan of up to 12 metres (39 feet) and weighing up to 200 kilos (440 pounds), just getting airborne was surely a challenge.

But engineer-cum-palaeontologist Colin Palmer at the University of Bristol in Britain has shown in wind-tunnel experiments that the prehistoric beasts were in fact stunningly adapted for certain types of flight.

Using curved sheets composed of and carbon fibre, Palmer constructed models of pterosaur wing sections based on .

Recent experiments on low-speed airfoils and sail boats provided clues on how the animal's sail-like wings might have functioned.

Then he tested the strength and aerodynamic properties of the mock appendages in a wind tunnel, much as a flight engineer might assess designs for an .

What he found was that the animals were best suited for flying smoothly over hillsides and coastlines on gentle thermals, or warm air currents.

Slow flight and the variable geometry of their wings also enabled them to perform soft landings, reducing the risk of breaking their fragile bones.

"Since the bones of the were thin-walled and thus highly susceptible to impact damage, the low-speed landing capability would have made an important contribution to avoiding injury," Palmer said.

The tests also showed, however, that powerful gusts would almost certainly have sent the creatures plummeting to Earth.

"The tradeoff would have been an extreme vulnerability to strong and turbulent winds both in flight and on the ground, like that experienced by modern-day paragliders," Palmer noted.

The study was published in the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, a journal of Britain's de-facto academy of science.

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Ravenrant
3 / 5 (4) Nov 23, 2010
BS, nature doesn't do that. If all we had was fossil evidence of birds and they found a fossil Albatross they probably would have said the same thing.
deatopmg
5 / 5 (2) Nov 23, 2010
Ravenrant - You are absolutely correct!!!
How could a species have survived 155 (220 - 65)million years and not be able to stay aloft in "strong and turbulent winds". Gale force winds and up - OK.

Nature simply doesn't do that, engineers do.
jimbo92107
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 24, 2010
It is possible that these creatures also were quite adept at anticipating bad weather, and at sensing when they were in an environment where turbulence could be a problem. Birds today are often quite skillful fliers; we cannot assume that ancient fliers were any less expert at optimizing their performance in the air. Skill counts for a lot.
kevinrtrs
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 24, 2010
This article should go on to say that the humble bumble bee should not be flying either - but it does.
Or that for the dragonfly, an unhappy flightless and totally nightmare existence should be in the offing - except that it's the most adept prey tracker of all.
So-called experts are usually totally flabbergasted at what ingenious designs the creator has put in place.
Ethelred
4 / 5 (4) Nov 27, 2010
This article should go on to say that the humble bumble bee should not be flying either - but it does
Bad math by one engineer does not an expert make.
- except that it's the most adept prey tracker of all.
Yes that is how evolution works. Species that hunt evolve features that support hunting. Like HUGE eyes.

So-called experts are usually totally flabbergasted at what ingenious designs the creator has put in place.


Nonsense. They are fascinated by how they evolved via natural laws that show a world vastly older than you accept.

When was the Flood Kevin?

Ethelred