A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

The Origin of Flight?


Pterosaurs probably didn’t fly like bats, according to a new study of bird ligaments and joints.

Most renderings and reconstructions of pterodactyls and other extinct flying reptiles show a flight pose much like that of bats, which fly with their hind limbs splayed wide apart. But a new method for inferring how ancient animals might have moved their joints suggests that pterosaurs probably couldn’t strike that pose.

“Most of the work that’s being done right now to understand pterosaur flight relies on the assumption that their hips could get into a bat-like pose,” says Armita Manafzadeh PhD’22, who led the research with Kevin Padian, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley. “We think future studies should take into account that this pose was likely impossible, which might change our perspective when we consider the evolution of flight in pterosaurs and dinosaurs.”

The research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is an effort to help paleontologists infer the range of motion of joints in a way that takes into account the soft tissues—particularly ligaments—that play key roles in how joints work. Generally, soft tissues don’t fossilize, leaving paleontologists to infer joint motion from bones alone. And there aren’t many constraints on how that’s done, says Manafzadeh, who studies in the lab of Professor of Biology Stephen Gatesy, PhD. So she wanted to find a way to use present-day animals to test the extent to which ligaments limit joint motion.

It’s an idea that started with grocery store chickens, Manafzadeh says.

“If you pick up a raw chicken at the grocery store and move its joints, you’ll reach a point where you’ll hear a pop,” she says. “That’s the ligaments snapping. But if I handed you a chicken skeleton without the ligaments, you might think that its joints could do all kinds of crazy things. So the question is, if you were to dig up a fossil chicken, how would you think its joints could move, and how wrong would you be?”

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