While dinosaurs roamed the Earth, flying reptiles called pterosaurs ruled the skies above. These included the largest animals to ever take flight, and a new study has uncovered some of the biological secrets that helped them grow so large. CT scans have revealed that the neck vertebrae of giant pterosaurs had a unique supporting structure never seen in any other animal.
The study, by paleontologists at the University of Portsmouth, focused on azhdarchids, a family of pterosaurs that ranged in size from a cat to a Cessna 172. Like any animal that wants to fly, their skeletons were made up of thin-walled, lightweight bones – but with necks longer than that of a giraffe, they should have struggled to carry the weight of their heads.
Previous studies had shown that the necks of azhdarchids weren’t very flexible. So how did these gigantic creatures avoid breaking their necks every time they snatched up prey, or encountered a strong headwind? To find out, the researchers on the new study performed CT scans of five cervical vertebrae that had been so well preserved that they retained their three-dimensional structure.
As previously assumed, it turned out that pterosaurs do have neck bones with a tube-within-a-tube structure, with the inner one being the neural tube that contains the spinal cord. But to the team’s surprise, the CT scans also revealed a unique, intricate supporting structure.