for National Geographic News
The first fossil footprints of a landing pterosaur have been discovered, a new study says (giant-pterosaur picture).
The tracks offer rare insight into a dinosaur-age mystery: How did these flying reptiles move?
Whereas walking dinosaurs left footprints, a pterosaur in mid-flight would have left little more than droppings.
This critical difference has made analyzing pterosaur flight much harder than studying the gaits of their dinosaur cousins.
The 140-million-year-old pterosaur tracks, found along a long-gone lagoon in what is now southwestern France, could help change that.
Flying-reptile footprints are so common at the late-Jurassic-period site that paleontologists call it Pterosaur Beach. But from the start, it was obvious the newfound cluster is one of a kind.
"When my co-author showed it to me and said what he thought it was, it seemed both obvious and cool to me," said study co-author Kevin Padian at the University of California, Berkeley.
"It's great to have a landing track."
How the Pterosaur Landed: Story in Stone
Like a dance-step diagram, the footstep fossils tell the sequence of the animal's movements as it landed.
The pterosaur first put its back feet down together and dragged its toes slightly. It then hopped back into the air for a moment before dropping onto its back feet a second time.
The flyer then looks to have lowered its wings, which had "hands" on either end, taken a step or two, turned, and walked off on all fours. (See "Pterosaurs Took Flight on All Fours.")
The relatively few landing tracks suggest that the pterosaur landed like most modern birds, flapping quickly right before landing to slow themselves down, the researchers say. (A few modern-day birds come in for a running landing, leaving lots of footprints.).
As exciting as the landing track is, Padian said, it's still solves only part of the mystery. "It would be equally cool to have a takeoff track."
Findings published today in the journal Proceedings B.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES