Flight Diversity and Pterosaurs

A few weeks ago, in a post titled The Curious Case of the Four-Winged Dinosaur, we discussed the two theories for the origin of vertebrate flight. For some time, scholars have been divided into two camps as to how biological flight started. One side favors a ground up approach, known as the Cursorial Theory, where dinosaurs, already feathered to preserve body heat, used the feathers to help them run and hop after fast-moving prey or from fast-moving predators, and eventually evolved wings that were strong enough to get them off the ground and keep them airborne. The other side favors a top down approach, known as the Arboreal Theory where species started to glide between trees to escape predators or to attack prey.

The case in question dealt mainly with  Microraptor gui, a four-winged dinosaur excavated from the rich fossil beds of Liaoning Province in northeastern China, and  dated at between 128 to 124 million years old (Early Cretaceous). Microraptor was found to have glided, which one might contend supports the Arboreal Theory of flight.

Now, in a related story (sent in by a few of you), a new study claims that the ancient winged reptiles known as pterosaurs used a “pole-vaulting” action to take to the air.

Pole-Vault Take OffAccording to a re-assessment of pterosaur fossils by Dr Mark Witton at Portsmouth University in the UK and Dr Michael Habib of Chatham University in Pennsylvania, the reptiles apparently vaulted over their wings, pushing off first with their hind limbs and then used their powerful arm muscles to thrust themselves upward to take flight, not unlike some modern bats.

Says Dr Habib:

“Instead of taking off with their legs alone, like birds, pterosaurs probably took off using all four of their limbs. By using their arms as the main engines for launching instead of their legs, they use the flight muscles – the strongest in their bodies – to take off and that gives them potential to launch much greater weight into the air.  When they were far enough off the ground, they could start flapping their wings before finding a thermal or another area of uplift to gain some altitude and glide off to wherever they wanted to go.”

It’s important to note that, while not technically dinosaurs, Pterosaurs lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, including Microraptor. And though they belonged to a different group of reptiles, the biological mechanisms for flying/gliding were similar across reptile species.

The study challenges previous claims that the giant pterosaurs, such as Pteranodon, were too heavy and therefore incapable of flight. The largest pterosaurs were thought to have had wingspans up to 13m and weighed up to 544kg. But the reappraisal of the pterosaur fossils suggests these numbers may have been overestimated. It now appears that the biggest creatures may have had 10-11m wingspans and weighed between 200 and 250 kg. And Witton and Habib maintain that the pole-vaulting action could have worked even for animals of that size.

PterosaurWe still don’t know the origin of vertebrate flight, and the arguments between Arboreal and Cursorial supporters will rage on until more evidence is gathered. But cases like this, if accurate, where not necessarily addressing the flight origin, nevertheless demonstrate one step in the evolutionary process that falls obviously within the Cursorial Theory line of thought. This is a fascinating for those of us interested in biological flight; especially since it draws a different conclusion than those dealing with Microraptor.

And the scientific beat goes on.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I look forward to the point where we can design reliable real-life mock-ups of things to test theories like this. Yes, we can do great things with computers… but I want a remote-controlled pterosaur.

  2. @Skepotter: I was actually referring to scale models that work, in theory, like the ancient animal.

    On the other hand, my mom has been wanting a list of more expensive things for Christmas… A flying dinosaur would be just the thing.

  3. Or perhaps both methods of flight evolved concurrently instead of one being the origin for all flight.

    I’ll let you all know when I get my time machine built and find out for myself :D

  4. Not to bog down the discussion with technicalities, but I work in a natural history museum and cannot allow too many misconceptions to perpetuate here.

    Pterosaurs were not the ancestors of modern birds, and flight in pterosaurs evolved independently from flight in birds.

    Pterosaur wings were supported by forearm and the pinky finger alone, with the other finger bones forming a small hand at the leading edge of the wing. Bird wings are supported primarily by the forearm and first and second finger fused together. The pinky finger has virtually vanished in modern birds.

    True flight has evolved independently at least four times on earth in Pterossaurs, birds, bats, and insects.

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