Courtesy John ConwayPaleontology, y’all, paleontology. We’ve got these bones, these fossilized bones. And they’re nice bones, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes they leave a little to be desired when it comes to reconstructing the nitty gritty and sticky details of what living dinosaurs (and pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, therapsids, etc) were actually like. A skeleton can give us a good idea of a creature’s general shape; it can show where the muscles went (more or less), what sort of food it ate, how it probably moved—that kind of thing. But how did they behave? What color were they? Exactly how strong were they? There are a whole slew of questions that get to be a little tricky.
So, how do paleontologists go about answering these questions? They get creative, they study all the tiniest details of the fossils, and, sometimes, they look to living animals for analogy—that is to say, if an animal alive today that lives in a similar environment to that of an extinct animal, and has a similar body type to the extinct animal, you might be able to base knowledge of the extinct animal on what you know of the living animal.
It’s a valuable avenue of study, but dinosaurs and their ilk were pretty different, after all, so how far do you think can we take analogies to living creatures?
And now on to the news item.
A Japanese researcher has opened up his sass-box and gotten all up in the faces of paleontologists around the world. Pterosaur specialist paleontologists are particularly fired up, and they’re a dangerous bunch. “Peer review” among pterosaur specialists, as I understand it, involves switchblades, and the majority of the community sports eye-patches.
This scientist, Katsufumi Sato of the University of Tokyo, is saying that pterosaurs (all of the huge extinct flying reptiles) probably maybe couldn’t actually, you know… fly.
Oh no you di’en’t!
Says Sato: Yes, yes I did. Specifically, what the scientist did was place accelerometers on the wings of a couple dozen sea birds on the Crozet Islands. The accelerometers measured, more or less, the flapping force and speed of the birds’ wings.
Among the birds studied were wandering albatrosses, which have the largest wingspans of any living birds. Large seabirds like this have often been used as analogies for pterosaurs for their somewhat similar body shapes. Many pterosaurs probably lived in a similar habitat to modern seabirds as well.
Albatrosses fly by riding shifting wind currents, and by flapping their wings when the wind isn’t suitable, or is absent entirely. Sato found that the seabirds he studied have two flapping speeds, a faster speed for taking off, and a slower speed for staying aloft in the absence of wind. He also noticed that, as this flapping speed is limited by the birds’ strength, it decreases in heavier birds with longer wings.
According to the calculations Sato based off of this data, birds (or pterosaurs) weighing more than about 90 pounds would be unable to fly without using wind currents—they simply wouldn’t be able to flap their wings fast enough to stay in the air. There were certainly pterosaurs that size and much smaller, but a lot of flying reptiles were probably a great deal larger than that (a very conservative estimate for the quetzalcoatlus, for example, would have it weighing around 220 pounds).
The article I read on this research doesn’t get into Sato’s hypothesis much more than that, but I’d assume that this means that larger pterosaurs would then also be unable to take off from anywhere other than, say, a cliff face. I wonder if the implication is also that they wouldn’t be doing any flying at all; that medium to large pterosaurs wouldn’t even be gliding on wind currents because, at some point, they’d need to gain some altitude on their own steam.
But, whatever the specifics, them’s fightin’ words, and pterosaur specialists the world over are no doubt sharpening their boot-spikes, and wrapping their fists in chains.
Is it a valid analogy? Maaaaybeeee… But I’m betting against it. There have been some interesting theories lately about how the largest of the pterosaurs may not have flown as much as we used to think, but they don’t imply that they couldn’t fly at all. In fact, the study I’m thinking of would further distance pterosaurs from large seabirds in terms of behavior and their ecological niches (making any analogies a little less apt).
Other scientists argue that in addition to anatomical and physiological differences that should be considered, the atmosphere of the Mesozoic was, on the whole, somewhat denser, and had higher concentrations of oxygen—factors that would have allowed flight for larger, heavier animals. Actually, I recommend checking out the discussion following the article. There are a bunch of explanations of how pterosaurs could have flown, despite what this study suggests. But, if you do go, bring your knives—they’re an angry bunch.