Newly-hatched pterosaurs may have been able to fly and could have been even more agile than their parents, research suggests.
A study by the universities of Portsmouth and Bristol into the prehistoric flying reptiles found their wing bones would have been strong enough for them to take flight.
They found their flying styles would have been different to adults, making them less efficient at long-distance travel but possibly allowing them to be more agile fliers, able to suddenly change direction and speed.
Pterosaurs lived during the triassic, jurassic and cretaceous periods, dating from 228 to 66 million years ago.
Researchers found 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 journal, they 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 the 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.
“Although we’ve known about pterosaurs for over two centuries, we’ve only had fossils of their embryos and hatchlings since 2004,” said Dr Mark Witton, from the University of Portsmouth.
“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 25cm 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.”