Pterosaurs May Have "Pole Vaulted" to Take Flight

By Andrew Moseman | November 15, 2010 12:21 pm

PterosaurWittonThe enormous wings of pterosaurs testify to the idea that these giant reptiles, which lived at the same time as dinosaurs, would have been masters of flight. But there’s one thing that nags paleontologists: pterosaur takeoff. Just how does a giraffe-sized creature get off the ground?

Not the way birds do, say Mark Witton and Mike Habib, biomechanists who for years have been modeling pterosaur flight, and have a new study forthcoming in PLoS One.

Birds rely on the strength of their legs to leap into the air or run to gain speed for take-off. Pterosaurs walked on all four limbs, and Habib has developed an anatomical model to explore how they might have launched themselves using their small hind limbs and larger “arms” which formed part of their wings. The animal could have launched itself like a pole vaulter, pushing forward with its hind limbs and using its powerful arms to thrust it high enough into the air to stretch its wings and fly away. [New Scientist]

Some bats take flight this way, and the scientists say it makes sense for the pterosaurs, which were built quite differently from birds. Says Witton:

“These creatures were not birds; they were flying reptiles with a distinctly different skeletal structure, wing proportions and muscle mass. They would have achieved flight in a completely different way to birds and would have had a lower angle of take off and initial flight trajectory.” [BBC News]

Even if the pterosaurs were masters of the pole vault technique, they still probably needed to be more svelte than some estimates have suggested. According to BBC News, Habib and Witton estimate the mass of the largest pterosaur to be between about 440 and 550 pounds—lighter than many previous figures. With that mass, the scientists’ biomechanical model predicted that pterosaurs could fly thousands of miles once aloft. Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t fly away from the extinction event 65 million years ago.

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Image: Mark Witton

  • Dante The Canadian

    I don’t like this sort of theorizing. Sounds like a couple of people sitting around after having a few drinks and then thinking “Dude, pole vaulting, that’s how they did it!!!”

    When I look at Pterosaurs, I see Reptile bats. Could the smaller ones have maybe lived in tree canopies and the larger ones lived in Giant caves and off cliffs similiar to Bats and large winged fliers like albatrosses?

  • Eric Roberts

    This sounds possible as nature has a way of solving many problems in life. This also could be why the Pterosaurs lived in many places on Earth and maybee even cross bred. I wonder if man will survive as long as the dinosaurs? I doubt it.

  • amphiox

    Erm, Dante #1, aren’t you doing in paragraph 2 the exact sort of theorizing you say you don’t like in paragraph 1?

    Not that I think it’s wrong. There is always a place for wild speculative theorizing, so long as it is openly recognized as such and done with due discipline.

  • Kin

    Now that last line was a cheap shot. Some of really are disappointed pterosaurs aren’t around right now. Disappointed in theory at least.

  • maddog

    This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. There is no clue from the anatomy of these creatures that they did anything of the sort. Really getting sick of some supposed experts coming up with this nonsense. It’s suppose to be science not speculation.

  • Possibility

    They flew because millions of years ago, Earth’s gravity was probably much lower than it is now. Also, at the time, having an oxygen rich enviroment allowed these incredible creatures to exist.

  • Gnarlodious

    The simplest solution is that there was less gravity back then. A lot less gravity. Do the math. How much gravity would be needed for the beast to fly?

  • s

    windy joints
    oxygen joints

  • MBH3Q

    Those interested in the anatomical evidence for the “pole-vaulting” launch can see an excerpt of a coming book here: and the full paper to which the above article refers here:

  • loren russell

    Maddog, read the PLOS paper! The authors are basically saying that, contra various opinions, at least two lineages of giant pterosaurs WERE highly capable of powered flight, including take-off and landing, and that they didn’t need ridiculous conditions [downhill run, high winds, sea-cliffs] to get into the air. What are the clues from their anatomy? Among other things, good articulated skeletons for the Pteranodon group, relative limb proportions and range of movement, muscle attachments, and especially the scaling of limb bones suggesting high dynamic loading consistent with powered take-off. We also have trackways of smaller related forms that confirm that the later pterosaurs were competent on land, with an upright quadrapedal gait. That suggests that they couldn’t launch off hindlimbs as birds generally do. So, given that the forelimbs [shoulder to “hand”] was half again as long as hindlimb, and more heavily muscled, the suggestion that they took a short run and then levered off the forelimbs seems sensible to me.


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