Scientists find one-of-a-kind bone structure that helped pterosaurs fly

Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Pterosaurs — massive, winged reptiles more closely related to birds than modern lizards — are some of the strangest animals known to science.

Pterosaurs of the Azhdarchidae family (known as azhdarchids) had necks longer than those of giraffes.

Before now it was unclear how the thin bones required for flight could support the weight of their heads, especially when they were capturing prey.

Mark Witton

Researchers from the U.S. and the U.K. recently found a surprising answer to that question.

The vertebrae of azhdarchid pterosaurs have an internal structure unlike anything seen before, they report in a new study.

Wild Horizon/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The researchers made the discovery while modeling the movement of pterosaur vertebrae, and got more than they bargained for from a CT scan.

"These animals have ridiculously long necks. It makes a giraffe look perfectly normal. We wanted to know a bit about how this incredibly long neck functioned, as it seems to have very little mobility between each vertebra." — First author Cariad Williams, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Mark Witton

The scan revealed an internal structure that researchers likened to a bike’s wheel, with thin “spokes” (called trabeculae) running from the center to the inner edge of the vertebrae in a helix pattern.

Just 50 trabeculae would let pterosaurs’ necks lift 90 percent more weight without breaking.

Williams, et al. ISCIENCE (2021)

“Evolution shaped these creatures into awesome, breathtakingly efficient flyers.”

Though the finding published in iScience answers one perplexing question about pterosaurs, the researchers say fundamental mysteries about the extraordinary creatures’ flight and eating habits remain.



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