Wednesday, 13 October 2010


The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was established in 1940 as a means of gathering resources and aiding communication to advance the science. It's based in Illinois but has nearly 2500 members spread across the world. Their annual meeting is going on right now in Pittsburgh, and is always the source of a good number of interesting articles.

One of the presentations was by Michael Habib of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and concerned the impressively huge species of azhdarchid pterosaurs that have been found in recent years. Quetzalcoatlus, the best known of these giants, had a wingspan of between 10-11m, and Habib reckons they could probably fly 10,000 miles at a go. It's quite a claim, and his calculations necessarily involve a little speculation - on body mass, wing size and shape, etc. - but as Habib himself points out, 'what's important is that the numbers are all big'. My kind of science. These things didn't fly like a madly flapping pigeon, but would have soared like a stork, spiralling over thermals to gain height and winds to provide lift. Quite why they'd want to be travelling such distances is another matter. Sometimes I can't even be bothered to go to the shops. Recent studies looking at their probable feeding methods seemed to rule out continuous flight as a way of life, favouring a land-based heron-style approach; wading in shallow water and stalking in short vegetation. Big as they were, I doubt they could sneak in a quick 10,000 miles between snacks.

Interestingly, not very long ago it was being suggested these things may not have flown at all. A paper last year looked at flap rates and weights of modern birds and thought these giraffe-sized pterosaurs just wouldn't be able to get off the ground. Reaction to this suggestion was fairly dismissive, it has to be said. On a very basic level - why else would they have massive great wings?

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