We know pterosaurs were the most pneumatised animals to ever live but we still don’t understand how heavy they were. For instance, estimates for the weight of Quetzalcoatlus northropi vary from 75kg to 544kg. This is because their fossils are incomplete and previous studies were based on birds, which isn’t an accurate comparison.
For example, we initially thought that pterosaurs took off by running or jumping. However, recent work has shown that they may have used their powerful forelimbs to launch themselves into the air in a similar way to vampire bats.
My research focuses on using CT scans and X-rays of pterosaur bones to create 3D models of their skeletons. These images allow me to see the internal structure of the bones, which improves our understanding of the distribution of mass and the thickness of the bones.
The goal is to determine which methods are better for determining how heavy these flying giants were. So far, we’ve found that pterosaur bones were heavier than previously thought, and that methods based on working out the volume of the body are more accurate than comparing them to modern animals. Several recent estimates put Quetzalcoatlus northropi at approximately 250kg.
Palaeontologists still have many questions about giant pterosaur flight. We don’t fully understand how they took off or what kind of flyers they were once in the air. Did they flap or soar? How long could they fly for? How did they land? In fact, some people still believe these giraffe-sized animals were too heavy to fly at all. But then what did they do with their wings? These are all questions that new techniques and fossil finds are starting to answer.