Dino-age Flyers Were Sharp-Eyed, Nimble, Study Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 29, 2003

Chances were good that prey snared in the sight of a soaring pterodactyl was as good as dead as soon as it was spotted, according to scientists who used sophisticated scanners and computer graphics to digitally reconstruct the brains of the extinct flying reptiles.

"It gives us a window into the behavior of these animals in a way we never thought possible," said Lawrence Witmer, an evolutionary biologist at Ohio University in Athens.

Based on an analysis of the reconstructions and comparisons to alligators and birds, the closest living relatives of pterosaurs, Witmer and colleagues suggest in the October 30 issue of the journal Nature that the ancient flying reptiles had eagle-like eyesight and precision flight control.

These skills, said Witmer, allowed pterosaurs to lock their gaze on prey as they performed complex aerial maneuvers to make the kill.

"The new work clarifies several aspects of pterosaur neural anatomy and prompts some startling new ideas regarding their locomotion and behavior," writes David Unwin, a paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, Germany, in an accompanying article.

First to Fly

Pterodactyls—the common name for pterosaurs—lived alongside dinosaurs during the Mesozoic, about 251 to 65 million years ago. They ranged in size from a few inches to over 40 feet (12 meters) in wingspan and were the first of only three vertebrates to evolve flight.

Birds, close cousins of pterodactyls, are believed to have evolved from theropod dinosaurs about 150 million years ago. Bats are mammals thought to have evolved from shrew-like creatures about 50 million years ago.

Morphologically, pterosaurs were a diverse lot, according to Christopher Bennett, a pterosaur expert at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. "They certainly beat out birds on the weird and bizarre scale, what with their extremes of size and large and varied cranial crest display structures," he said.

Scientists have long been intrigued by how pterosaurs flew, but their fossils are rare and often crushed owing to their delicate nature: hollow and lightweight.

Witmer's colleagues, Sankar Chatterjee at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and Jonathan Franzosa and Timothy Rowe at the University of Texas, Austin, recently obtained nearly intact skulls of two pterosaurs: Rhamphorhynchus and Anhanguera.

Rhamphorhynchus had a 3-foot (1-meter) wingspan and 4-inch-long (10-centimeter-long) skull and lived about 150 million years ago in what is now Germany. Anhanguera had a 14-foot (4-meter) wingspan and 20-inch (50-centimeter) skull and lived 115 million years ago in what is now Brazil.

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