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Four, three, two, one . . . pterosaurs have lift off
Date:1/6/2009

Pterosaurs have long suffered an identity crisis. Pop culture heedlessly and wrongly lumps these extinct flying lizards in with dinosaurs. Even paleontologists assumed that because the creatures flew, they were birdlike in many ways, such as using only two legs to take flight.

Now comes what is believed to be first-time evidence that launching some 500 pounds of reptilian heft into flight required pterosaurs to use four limbs: two were ultra-strong wings which, when folded and balanced on a knuckle, served as front "legs" that helped the creature to walk and leap.

Publishing in Zitteliana, Michael B. Habib, M.S., of the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, reports his comparison of bone strength in the limbs of pterosaurs to that of birds and concludes that pterosaurs had much stronger "arms" than legs. The reverse is true of birds.

"We've all seen birds take off, so that's what's most familiar," says Habib. "But with pterosaurs, extinct 65 million years and with a fossil history that goes back 250 million years, what's familiar isn't relevant."

A supersized glitch is inherent in the traditional bipedal launch model, Habib notes: "If a creature takes off like a bird, it should only be able to get as big as the biggest bird."

Birds use legs to launch, wings to flap. They don't get launch power from wings or flight power from legs. In fact, when a bird is aloft, its legs become payload, or cargo. The muscle on the two back limbs that provides the power to launch must be carried and therefore limits size. Released of that handicap by employing all four legs to launch, giant pterosaurs could fly despite the fact that they were roughly the same size and shape as modern-day giraffes.

"The difference between pterosaurs and birds with regard to critical mechanical properties is very, very large," Habib says, especially when you're ta
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Contact: Maryalice Yakutchik
myakutc1@jhmi.edu
443-287-2251
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Source:Eurekalert

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