Fierce and majestic, the dinosaurs that walked this earth before us star in the dreams of many a child. Perhaps the most majestic of them all, the mighty pterosaur soared above the earth, king of the skies. Recent articles and reports from science writers have tried to burst this dream with the claim that the mighty pterosaur was simply too big to fly, but they may be making their reports too soon. “Science is messy” (Switek) and new papers and claims cannot be held up as scientific fact until they have been adequately supported by other scientists and meaningful evidence. The fact is that this drastic claim that the pterosaur could not fly has not yet reached this threshold of evidence to be considered scientific fact and therefore there is still hope for the pterosaur remaining the king of the skies.
Sankar Chattejee, a geoscience researcher at Texas Tech University made the claim that acts as the topic of controversy. According to the research done by Chatterjee, the Pterosaur weighed around 70kg (155 lbs.). 70kg would not allow for enough muscle mass to produce flight for a creature so large, making the pterosaur essentially too weak to fly.
Chatterjee’s data and hypothesis did not go uncontested in the scientific community. The biggest point of controversy is the actual weight of the pterosaur. According to Chatterjee, a creature approximately the size of a giraffe with a wingspan of about 35’, larger than an F-16 (Davis), weighs no more than a medium sized human at 70kg. Other researchers argue that the pterosaur weighed closer to 200kg or more. That much weight would allow for enough muscle mass to effective takeoff using the pole vault method that had been widely accepted before this new debate. (See link to video for description of pole vault method). (O’Hanlon)
Another critic, Micheal Habib penned a very convincing counter argument to Chatterjee’s claim. Micheal Habib who specializes primarily in the anatomy and biomechanics of pterosaurs of the late cretaceous, claims that many of Chatterjee’s hypotheses don’t make anatomical sense. For instance, Habib points out that it simply makes no sense that a flyer would have less wing clearance by jumping for takeoff rather than by running along the ground. “It simply isn’t possible to get more clearance by not jumping (it might be true that jumping still isn’t enough, but it’s not going to be worse)” (Habib) Furthermore, Habib points out that while Chatterjee claimed that since the pterosaur cannot operate like scaled up bats, they should work like scaled up birds, but in fact the pterosaurs physiology does not match either the bat or the bird so the point is moot. (Habib)
Clearly there is debate on this topic within the scientific community, so why is there essentially no debate in most science publications? Science writer and paleontologist Brian Switek, one of the leading critics of this new research, believes that the science writing community is too quick to embrace essentially untested research. According to Switek few if any of the new articles in science publications have accounted for or even acknowledged past research done on this topic. “Chatterjee’s presentation is part of a long-running investigation about how pterosaurs took to the air. Ignoring that point, and treating a non-peer-reviewed talk as a new fact to catalog, does a disservice to the science and to readers” (Switek).
Science is, and always has been, an ongoing process of research and revision. Scientific fact cannot just spring forth out of one scientist’s hypotheses. It must first be tested and confirmed by outside sources and evidence. Only then can a theory become a widely accepted fact. It seems that in their search for a sensational story, science writers have forgotten this important law of Science and have attempted to write off pterosaurs as flyers before sufficient proof is established. This debate will likely continue for some time, but until it comes to any definitive conclusion, the pterosaur is still the lord of the skies, no matter what journalists may report.
- Chatterjee, Sankar. “Flight-initiating quadrupedal jumps in the giant pterodactyloid Quetzalcoatlus: Fact or fantasy?” GSA, 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.
- Davis, John. “Researcher Uncovers More Information About Rare Pterosaur.” Texas Tech Today RSS. Texas Tech University, 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
- Habib, Micheal. “Pterosaur.net Blog” : November 2012. N.p., 12 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.
- O’Hanlon, Larry. “Flying Dino Too Weak to Lift Off?” Discovery News. Discovery Channel, 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
- Switek, Brian. “Pterosaur Takeoff Tussle Highlights Science News Fumble.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 11 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2012