Newly-hatched pterosaurs may have been able to fly after new research found the wing bones would have been strong enough for flight.
The study by the universities of Portsmouth and Bristol into the prehistoric flying reptiles found that although the hatchlings might have been able to take flight, their flying styles would have been different to adults.
Pterosaurs were a group of flying reptiles that lived during the triassic, jurassic and cretaceous periods, dating from 228 to 66 million years ago.
Researchers found that hatchling humerus bones, which had a wingspan of only 25cm, were stronger than those of many adult pterosaurs, indicating they would have been strong enough for flight.
In the study, published in Scientific Reports, the researchers modelled the flying abilities of hatchlings using previously obtained wing measurements from four established hatchling and embryo fossils from two pterosaur species, pterodaustro guinazui and sinopterus dongi.
The researchers found that while hatchlings had long, narrow wings suited to long-distance flight, their wings were shorter and broader than those of adult pterosaurs, with a larger wing area relative to hatchling mass and body size.
These wing dimensions may have made hatchlings less efficient than adult pterosaurs at long-distance travel, but may have resulted in them being more agile fliers, enabling them to suddenly change direction and speed.
Dr Mark Witton, from the University of Portsmouth, said: “Although we’ve known about pterosaurs for over two centuries, we’ve only had fossils of their embryos and hatchlings since 2004.
“We’re still trying to understand the early stages of life in these animals. One discussion has centred around whether pterosaurs could fly as hatchlings or, like the vast majority of birds and bats, they had to grow a little before they could take wing.
“We found that these tiny animals – with 25 cm wingspans and bodies that could neatly fit in your hand – were very strong, capable fliers.
“Their bones were strong enough to sustain flapping and take-off, and their wings were ideally shaped for powered, as opposed to gliding, flight.
“However, they would not have flown exactly like their parents simply because they were so much smaller: flight capabilities are strongly influenced by size and mass, and so pterosaur hatchlings, being hundreds of times smaller than their parents, were likely slower, more agile fliers than the wide-ranging, but less manoeuvrable adults.”
Dr Liz Martin-Silverstone, from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, said: “It’s exciting to discover that even though their wings may have been small, they were built in a way that made them strong enough to fly.”