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High-Flying Pterosaurs Could Really Wing It

Model of a pterosaur at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo. These ancestors of birds may have been able to fly at 80 miles an hour and up to 12,000 miles at a time. Photo by Itsuo Inouye.

Who says newer is better? A flying dinosaur from the Cretaceous age may have been able to fly twice as far as any bird today – and a lot higher.

Two scientists have produced evidence that pterosaurs were equipped to fly at up to 80 miles an hour for up to 10 days at a time and at an altitude of 15,000 feet. That means their range, on any single flight, would have been as much 12,000 miles.

“It would have been a very bizarre animal to see fly above you or walk around on the ground,” says Mike Habib, a specialist in biomechanics from Chatham University who co-wrote the study. “It would look like a strange amalgamation of a classic modern reptile, bird, giraffe and bat all squeezed into one.”

The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, notes that the pterosaurs known as Quetzalcoatlus had a 35-foot wingspan. Habib and a colleague, paleontologist Mark Witton, plugged the raw data they had – wingspan, weight and aerodynamics – into their computer to come up with their amazing projections.

While some scientists have argued that the biggest of the pterosaurs may have been unable even to get airborne, Habib and Witton say that the animal’s hollow bones, strong wing muscles and powerful launch mechanism made for a winning combination of talents.

More pterosaur bones are being discovered in Germany, China and Brazil, so we may well be learning more about these remarkable ancient animals in months to come.