Fossils flew like jumbo jets, according to a report in ABC (Australia) News in Science, 17 Oct 2005. Scientists have long wondered how pterosaurs, large winged reptiles that may have had wingspans up to 18 metres wide, were able to take off and land. As we only know them as fossils these days it is impossible to study their flight. A clue comes from a bone called the pteroid bone, a long slender bone unique to pterosaurs that supported a membrane, called the forewing, at the front of each wing. It had a bend in it, but scientists were unsure how it was orientated and what its function was. If it pointed towards the body the forewing was narrow, but if it was directed forward it would support a much broader forewing.

To help solve the puzzle Matthew Wilkinson of Cambridge University used wing tunnel tests of scale models of pterosaurs with the pteroid bone in different positions. They found that a forward facing pteroid bone would have supported a larger forewing that acted as leading edge flap that gave extra lift to the wings. This flap would have enabled a large pterosaur to take off by spreading its wings into a breeze, and it would have acted as an airbrake to facilitate soft landings. The researchers also point out, “It would have also served as a control surface during normal flight. For example, flexing one pteroid while extending the other would have increased lift on one wing, thereby initiating a roll.” This means that pterosaurs used their forewings like the flaps found on modern day jet aircraft wings. Darren Naish, a dinosaur expert at the University of Portsmouth commented: “This work solved several mysteries that have long existed, and shows that pterosaurs evolved novel solutions to the problems of active flight.”


Editorial Comment: Active flight does present problems and the solutions require clever design and creative engineering. Jumbo jets and other modern aircraft have complex wings that facilitate take off, landing and manoeuvring in flight, but everyone knows it took clever scientists and engineers to design and build them, often after carrying out wind tunnel studies. It took intelligent scientists using wind tunnels to work out how pterosaurs wings worked and how they could have been used effectively. Therefore, it is absurd to claim that the wings and the nervous system control needed to use them, evolved with no intelligence at all. (Ref. aerodynamics, pterodactyls, engineering)