Massive flying reptiles

Scientists examine ‘ridiculously long’ necks of pterosaurs

By   |  Published: 16th Apr 2021  11:45 pmUpdated: 16th Apr 2021  5:37 pm

One of the azhdarchid pterosaur’s most notable features for such a large flighted animal was a neck longer than that of a giraffe. Now, researchers report an unexpected discovery: their thin neck vertebrae got their strength from an intricate internal structure unlike anything that’s been seen before.

Pterosaurs, one of the first and largest vertebrates to learn to fly, have often been seen as the cool cousins of the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex. Now scientists have discovered the 100m-year-old secret to the success of the flying pterosaur: a neck longer than a giraffe.

Palaeontologists from Portsmouth University have been puzzled at how gigantic flying azhdarchid pterosaurs have managed to support their thin necks as they take off and fly while carrying heavy prey animals. But thanks to new CT scans of intact remains, discovered in Morocco, the mystery has been solved.

The findings, published in iScience, show a complex image of spoke-like structures, arranged in a helix around a central tube inside the neck vertebra, similar to that of a bicycle wheel.

This intricate design is said to demonstrate how these flying reptiles had evolved to support their massive heads that often measure longer than 1.5 metres. Scientists suspect this “lightweight” construction offered strength, without compromising the pterosaurs’ ability to fly.
Analysis of spokes

Researchers had originally set out to study the shape and movements of the pterosaur’s neck, but took advantage of the offer of a CT scan to look inside.

Analysis shows as few as 50 of the “spokes” in the pterosaur’s neck could lead to a 90% increase in resistance to buckling.

Scientists believe the intricate construction could help engineers develop longer, thinner, and stronger lightweight structures.

Cariad Williams, the first author of the report, said: “These animals have ridiculously long necks, and in some species the fifth vertebra from the head is as long as the animal’s body.

Flight abilities

Pterosaurs appeared in fossil records from the Triassic period, about 225m years ago, but disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous period, approximately 66m years ago along with their dinosaur cousins.

Researchers say thanks to these north African remains, they now want to answer basic questions, such as the flight abilities of pterosaurs, which can have a wing span of up to 12 metres.


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