The Associated Press
updated 10/29/2003 1:13:40 PM ET 2003-10-29T18:13:40

Scientists have delved into the virtual brains of extinct flying reptiles to discover how the creatures conquered the skies more than 100 million years ago. They say pterosaurs, the largest animals that ever flew, were able to soar through the air while dinosaurs roamed below and could swoop down on unsuspecting prey because of their specialized brains.

InsertArt(2056069)USING HIGH-TECH SCANS, computer-generated images and rare fossil skulls from two types of the creatures, a team of researchers re-created their virtual brains to uncover new clues about how flight evolved.

“We can take the fossil remains of completely extinct animals and discover a great deal about their biology and behavior,” Dr. Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University told Reuters. “With the pterosaurs, we were able to bring in a missing piece of the puzzle with regard to their flight apparatus and what it means to be a flier.”

Although birds and pterosaurs, which evolved into species ranging from a tiny bird-size creature to massive fliers with a 40-foot (12-meter) wing span, developed flight independently, the scientists found similarities in their brain structures.

“We were able to reconstruct what the brains and inner ear canals looked like in the virtual realm,” Witmer added.

In pterosaurs, part of the brain called the flocculus, which controls movement, was much larger than in birds. It processes information on body, neck and head position and relays it to the muscles that move the eyes.

The scientists, who reported their research in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, suspect the large flocculus allowed the creatures to process data from their wings, which were covered with skin and had muscle fiber, and was an important sensory organ.

“It could potentially sense a great deal with its wing,” Witmer said, adding that it might sense air speed and its position in space.

The information from the wing would have allowed the animal to change its body position in flight but keep its eyes focused on its prey.

David Unwin, of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, said in a commentary in the journal that the new findings confirm that pterosaurs had a remarkably birdlike brain.

With the large flocculus to process information, the pterosaurs would have been equipped with “smart” wings that would have given them excellent flight control.

“Despite their antiquity, they could have outperformed modern birds and bats,” Unwin added.

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