New research has found that pterodactyls, extinct flying reptiles that lived during the time of the dinosaurs, could fly from birth. It’s an ability that no other flying animal living today, or in the history of life as we know it, has been able to replicate.
Previously, pterodactyls were thought to only be able to fly once they had grown to almost full size, like birds or bats, which have to learn how to use their wings.
Theoretically what pterosaurs did, growing and flying, is impossible, but they didn’t know this, so they did it anyway.
Another fundamental difference between baby pterodactyls – known as flaplings – and baby birds or bats, is that they had no parental care and had to feed and look after themselves from birth. The researchers suggest that the flaplings’ ability to fly gave them a lifesaving survival mechanism which they used to evade carnivorous dinosaurs. On the other hand, the researchers said, this same ability also proved to be one of their biggest killers, as the demanding and dangerous process of flight led to many of them dying at a very early age.
Previous studies were based on fossilized embryos of the creatures that had poorly developed wings. For the new study, the researchers compared these embryos with data on prenatal growth in birds and crocodiles, which suggested that they were still at an early stage of development and a long way from hatching. The discovery of more advanced pterodactyl embryos in China and Argentina that died just before they hatched provided the evidence that pterodactyls had the ability to fly from birth.
Bottom line: New research suggests that pterodactyls could fly from birth.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.