Scientists are only now starting to recognise the astonishing
size reached by pterosaurs, the flying reptiles that lived at the
time of the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic Era (248 - 65 million years
New discoveries in the Americas suggest some had wingspans of
But there was nothing ugly about the way they moved through the
air, according to expert Dr David Martill, of the University of
Their ability to utilise air currents, thermals and ground
effects would astonish aeroplane designers, he said. "Pterosaurs were beautifully engineered," he added.
"Their skeletons were exceedingly light: their bones were very
thin and hollow, and those hollows were filled with an air-sack
system. They'd also got rid of their reptilian scales and their wing
membrane was very, very thin. "All this meant there wasn't that much weight to get off the
ground, and so they probably flew really rather well," the
The oldest pterosaur fossils date back to 220 million years and
scientists have now identified several different forms - some with
teeth, some without; and some sporting elaborate head crests.
With their membranous wings attached to their legs, there was
something bat-like about them, and their long beaks look like some
bird species - but scientists stress they have no line of descent to any living
Indeed, there is still great debate about where exactly they
should be placed in the evolution of life forms on Earth. Dr Martill
told the British Association's Festival of Science in Dublin that
new discoveries would help solve this riddle - and perhaps reveal
just how big these beasts managed to grow.
Pterosaur trackways recently found in Mexico suggest the animals
could achieve a wingspan of 18m. There are also Romanian and
Brazilian fossils from creatures that reached 13 or 14m (42-45ft)
across. Compare this to today's biggest flying bird, the wandering
albatross, which has a wingspan of about 3.5m (11.5ft).
"One of the reasons they were so big may have been because they
just kept on growing," speculated Dr Martill. "We get to teenage years and we stop; but if a pterosaur kept on
growing then the older it got, the bigger it got. They would be rare
as big ones, though, because the older you get, the more chance you
have of being eaten or being involved in an accident."
There is evidence from rare fossil eggs containing pterosaur
embryos which suggests the creatures could fly soon after hatching.
If this was the case, scientists say, it was a remarkable
achievement because the wings would have had to have grown from just
a few tens of centimetres in length to several metres without
interrupting the animals flying capability.
"The equivalent of an aircraft engineer trying to convert a
Eurofighter into a jumbo jet while it was still flying," enthused Dr