Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Terror storks of the Mesozoic


Back when I was a dinosaur-obsessed kid staring at vivid paintings of great battles between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, those lurid images invitably had crested Pteranodon soaring overhead, its 27-foot wings keeping it safe from the melee below. Later, Pteranodon was dethroned as biggest flying creature by Quetzalcoatlus, with an immense 40-foot span. The current champion is the massive Hatzegopteryx from Romania.

How did these monsters live? Scientists had difficulty understanding how creatures that big could even get off the ground. For a while people thought that they were the reptile equivalent of balsa wood, incredibly light for their size and delicate. They were thought to cling to windy hillsides and pluck fish out of the water.

Now, a new paper by Darren Naish and Mark Witton of the University of Portsmouth turns all of that upside down. These huge flying creatures were sturdy, agile on the ground, and could get airborne in a hurry when they needed to. Imagine gigantic storks, walking on all fours through a fern meadow in the Cretaceous, looking for baby dinosaurs to munch on and leaping into the air with a flap of airplane-size wings when the enraged parent shows up.

This is why I love the internet. I can hear about this sort of thing as soon as it's published and not have to wait six months for it to appear in National Geographic. I can read the paper myself, as much as I can understand of it and read opinions about it from other specialists. The writers of this paper are both well known in the palaeo-freak world. Darren Naish discusses it on his always interesting blog, and Mark Witton created the above image; his Flickr site is the place for Pterosaur imagery.