University of Portsmouth discover prehistoric winged lizard's secret to success

The prehistoric winged lizard had a neck longer than a giraffe. Credit: University of Portsmouth

Scientists from the University of Portsmouth have discovered the secret to the success of a prehistoric winged lizard, with a neck longer than a giraffe.

They wondered how giant pterosaurs could support their neck, whilst flying and carrying heavy prey.

New CT scans of fossils have uncovered a spoke-like structure inside the bone.

It's thought the discovery could help engineers to develop new thinner and stronger lightweight structures.


  • Prof Dave Martill, Professor of Palaeobiology, University of Portsmouth


Dave Martill, Professor of Palaeobiology, University of Portsmouth, says: "We found that not only are there spoked but they spiral around! They spiral this way and they spiral that way".

"You sort of realise that you're looking at something that, in engineering terms, is something very beautiful. and when you do the maths on it you suddenly realise that its absolutely fantastically efficient as well".

CT scans of fossils have uncovered a spoke-like structure inside the bone.

The intricate design demonstrates how these flying reptiles had evolved to support massive heads that often measured longer than 1.5 metres.

This ‘lightweight’ construction offered strength, without compromising the pterosaurs’ ability to fly. 

These animals have ridiculously long necks, and in some species the fifth vertebra from the head is as long as the animal’s body. It makes a giraffe look perfectly normal. We wanted to know a bit about how this incredibly long neck functioned, as it seems to have very little mobility between each vertebra

Cariad Williams, the first author of the report
Researchers had originally set out to study the shape and movements of the neck, but took advantage of the offer of a CT scan to look inside.
  • Pterosaurs facts

225 million years ago

First appeared on fossil records

66 million years ago

Disappeared at the end of Cretaceous period

12 metres

Wingspan

1.5 metres

Head length

The team of palaeontologists realised they needed an expert in engineering help to understand more about what they’d discovered.

Analysis shows that as few as 50 of the ‘spokes’ in the pterosaur’s neck could lead to a 90 per cent increase in resistance to buckling.

It’s thought the intricate construction could now help engineers develop new longer, thinner and stronger lightweight structures.