How Did Pterosaurs Fly?

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One of my favorite aspects of fluid dynamics is how well it pairs with so many other fields, from mathematics and space exploration to biology, medicine, and even paleontology. That last field is key to today’s question, namely: how did a prehistoric reptile the size of an F-16 manage to fly?

As Joe’s video describes, many factors went into Quetzalcoatlus’ flight. The pterosaur had strong but hollow bones to save on weight while anchoring flight muscles. Its wing shape mimicked an airfoil’s. And, finally, it overcame the challenge of taking off by using both its front and hind limbs to leap off the ground, much like modern bats do.

There’s no doubt that it would be stunning (and probably terrifying!) to see these creatures in action. But you may wonder how scientists piece together these animals from incomplete fossils. Don’t worry! There’s a video for that question, too. (Video and image credit: It’s Okay to Be Smart; see also the video’s references)

One comment
  1. David Esker

    It is extremely misleading of you to show a video of mouse-size bat achieving flight by leaping into the air and then claim that a giraffe-size pterosaurs could have done the same thing. In making these statements you are doing a disservice to science in propagating the incorrect belief that size is not important. Galileo’s Square Cube Law is an extremely fundamental physics concept that clarifies that as we go from smaller to larger objects the volume and likewise the mass of an object increase much more than the area. Hence, size matters. Besides Galileo’s Square Cube Law, there are few more topics such as relative power and the flight equations, but to make a long story short there are several good scientific reasons for why there is a limitation on the size of a bat or a modern day flying bird.

    In the interview video, Jim presents the highly questionable claims of the paleontologist as if there is no controversy over how the pterosaurs flew. No mention is made of the Newtonian physics or any aerodynamic flight equations that could easily show what is wrong with the paleontologist’s claims, nor is there any mention that paleontologists cannot get a representative RC pterosaurs model to fly. The belief that pterosaurs could have flown in today’s atmosphere does not make sense, and to continue to push this false claim of these paleontologists accomplishes nothing other than destroying the credibility of science.

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