The biggest animal to ever fly was a reptile with a giraffe neck

Flying lizards with giraffe necks and wings reaching nearly 40 feet once ruled the sky while dinosaurs roamed below. These impressive though bizarre beasts, the Azhdarchid pterosaurs, lived from the Upper Triassic period until the late Cretaceous, and are the largest known vertebrates to ever take flight.

Scientists have long wondered how these ancient lizards could support their heads – their bones, like those of most birds, are quite light and fragile. Especially if they carried prey in their mouths, the weight of the skull would be quite difficult to bear with such a long and thin neck. Corn new search published this week in iScience shows that these animals had a unique bone structure: their vertebrae had thin struts that extended from a central neural tube to the wall of the vertebra, similar to spokes on a bicycle. The effect is a helix-shaped support structure.

“It is unlike anything seen before in an animal vertebra,” paleobiologist and co-author David Martill said in a declaration. “This structure… resolved many concerns about the biomechanics of how these creatures were able to support massive heads – over 1.5 meters – on necks longer than the modern giraffe, while still retaining the ability to fly. motorized. “

Martill and his team made the discovery by examining Azhdarchid pterosaur fossils from the Kem Kem site in Morocco, a region rich in fossils and one of the few places where relatively intact Azhdarchid specimens can be found. They placed pterosaur vertebrae using a scanner and were amazed at the structures they found inside.

With the help of biomechanical engineers, they then evaluated how useful the ray-like structures were in relieving the neck strain of flying reptiles. Their analyzes revealed that only 50 of these spacers (with limited fossil records, it’s unclear exactly how many each creature had) increased their carrying capacity by 90 percent, which explains how these ancient lizards could be flying. so powerful and fierce predators. without breaking your neck.

Neck strength could also have been important to these pterosaurs for the ‘neck nod’, a type of ritual focused on rivalry between males that giraffes engage in today.

Knowing the structure of these vertebrae will help scientists better understand Azhdarchid pterosaurs, how they moved to prey they might have caught and how big they really might have become.

Either way, the unprecedented structure of the neck vertebrae is a real discovery, Martill said, and shows how “evolution has shaped these creatures into awe-inspiring and breathtaking fliers.”

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