technology

Gigantic flying reptile with ‘ridiculously long’ neck was ‘unlike anything seen before’


This illustration shows an artist’s rendering of the pterosaur (Alanqa saharica). (Credit: Davide Bonadonna)

Hundreds of millions of years ago, gigantic flying reptiles with ‘ridiculously long’ necks soared through the skies and hunted prey.

The largest animals ever to fly, they’re thought to have lived during the Late Triassic period about 225 million years ago. Like their dinosaur cousins, they disappeared from the fossil record at the end of the Cretacous period around 66 million years ago.

Little is known about these strange creatures, which are called pterosaurs. In particular, scientists have long puzzled over their incredibly long necks.

The animals needed light, thin-walled bones to fly. Researchers previously thought this meant their necks would have a simple ‘tube-within-a-tube’ bone structure.

But this kind of structure might not have been strong enough to support their bodies, let alone allow them to carry heavy prey in their jaws.

‘It makes a giraffe look normal’

These flying dinosaurs had long necks like a giraffe

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By chance, a research team have solved the mystery of how these reptiles flew and hunted with their long necks.

The scientists based at the University of Portsmouth were planning to scan the outside of some Moroccan pterosaur bones to understand more about how they moved, researcher Cariad Williams explained.

‘These animals have ridiculously long necks,’ she said, adding that, in some species, a certain vertebra is as long as the animal’s body.

‘It makes a giraffe look perfectly normal,’ she added.

The team were given the opportunity to image the bones with a CT scanner, which allowed them to look inside the creature’s vertebra.

Although they didn’t need to look inside the bones, researcher Dave Martill said ‘it seemed churlish’ to turn down the offer.

Unexpectedly clear CT images revealed a perfectly-preserved structure that was ‘unlike anything seen previously in a vertebra of any animal,’ he said.

The pterosaur’s vertebrae have a bicycle wheel-like spoke arrangement. (Credit: Williams et al.)

Nestled in the vertebra’s lightweight tube-within-a-tube structure were thin, rod-like formations that resembled the wheels of a bicycle.

Martill said: ‘As soon as we saw the intricate pattern…we realised there was something special going on.

‘As we looked closer, we could see that they were arranged in a helix traveling up and down the vertebral tube and crossing each other like bicycle wheel spokes.’

‘Awesome, breathtakingly efficient flyers’

With the help of engineers, the researchers worked out that just 50 of these spoke-like formations increased the weight the animals’ necks could carry by 90 percent.

This explains how the animals captured and carried heavy prey without breaking their necks.

Martill and team wrote described the creatures as ‘fantastically complex and sophisticated’ in a paper detailing their discovery in the journal iScience.

He added: ‘Evolution shaped these creatures into awesome, breathtakingly efficient flyers.’


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