60-Second Science

Pterodactyls' Ptough Ptakeoffs

Johns Hopkins researcher Michael Habib contends that the weight carried by most pterosaurs meant that they needed to push off the ground with all four limbs to achieve takeoff (in a study published in the German journal Zitteliana Reihe B: Abhandlungen der Bayerischen Staatssammlung fur Palaontologie und Geologie). Karen Hopkin reports, with additional analysis by Maria Bamford

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

A bird in flight is a thing of beauty. Even their takeoffs and landings usually look effortless. But pterodactyls? Well, that’s another story. Scientists have long assumed that pterodactyls, also called pterosaurs, flew just like birds, and launched themselves using their hind legs. Now a biologist at Johns Hopkins says that can’t be true. Instead, he says that pterosaurs needed all four limbs for liftoff.

Modern birds use their legs to launch and their wings to stay aloft. Once they’re in the air, their hind limbs are essentially payload, carried along for the ride. That arrangement presents a problem. A bird’s legs have to be muscular enough to get Tweety off the ground, but not so big that they drag him down. That limits how big a bird can be. Some pterosaurs, on the other hand, were the size of a giraffe. And looking at the bones of three different pterodactyl species, the Hopkins scientist concludes that there’s no way those legs were strong enough to get that bulk airborne. Instead, he says a pterosaur used all four limbs, leapfrogging forward on its knuckles, to propel itself into the air. Maybe not a thing of beauty. But it must have been something to see.


—Karen Hopkin

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