Dinosaurs are not just the stuff of movies and legends. They were real, and some had wings. I know what you’re thinking: “How did those giant, heavy reptiles get off the ground?” The ancestors of birds could not fly—they glided from tree to tree. And it turns out that dinosaurs were pretty good at it.
Flapping wing flight is one of the most fascinating and impressive adaptations animals have evolved. It’s also a very difficult concept to grasp fully. Humans have been trying to build flying machines for centuries, but we still haven’t cracked the code.
Ancient beasts were able to do it, though. And many of them used flapping wings to get around, from Pterosaurs (the first vertebrates on Earth to evolve powered flight) to Quetzalcoatlus, who had a wingspan of over 10 feet.
This article will explore how ancient beasts like these used flapping wings to take flight and how they evolved these adaptations over time.
Pre-Modern Art and History of Flying-Reptiles
The flying reptiles have been a source of fascination for scientists since they were first discovered in the late 18th century.
Flying reptiles were a diverse group of animals that lived during the Triassic and Jurassic periods. They had long bodies and strong jaws, but they also had wings to glide between trees.
They had a flapping-wing flight, the same method used by bats and pterosaurs today. It means they could fly without constantly flapping their wings like birds do today. Instead, they would flap their wings once every few seconds.
Scientists speculate that these ancient animals may have been able to fly across oceans as many modern birds do. They fly by gliding along air currents. It’s hard to know for sure. The largest species grew up to thirty feet long.
No fossils exist from this group of animals because their bodies were mainly made from soft tissue instead of bone. Soft tissue makes fossilization difficult since there are no scales, bones, or teeth like dinosaurs.
Pre-Modern Biology and Mythology of Flying-Reptiles
The dragon is a mythical creature that has appeared in many forms throughout history. The ancient belief was that dragons were large, scaly, and had four legs. When not in flight, it could fold its wings against its body. In some cultures, people view dragons as evil creatures.
Many flying reptiles known as pterosaurs (pterodactyls) lived alongside the dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era (250 million years ago). Many ancient civilizations, such as China, Japan, and Greece, depicted the dragon as a fearsome and powerful creature. There are also many types of dragon myths from all over the world. Like those found in Greek mythology, where there are three main types:
- Heteroceratops (winged horse)
- Pegasos (winged horse)
- Chrysaor (winged man)
Leonardo da Vinci first proposed the idea of these creatures in 1480. He said that his observations of nature led him to believe that there were animals that could fly with wings on their backs like bats do today. He also believed that humans had once been able to fly using these same wings before evolution changed us so much over time.
Dinosaur Aerodynamics: The Physics of Flapping Wings
Aerodynamics is all about friction and air resistance. When you figure out how to fly by flapping your arms or wings like a bird, you need to know how much force you can produce against gravity and other forces that work against you. Let’s discuss a few theories.
The skeletal structures of dinosaurs and birds are similar but differ in many ways. Birds have lightweight skeletons lined with hollow bones to help them fly. In contrast, dinosaurs have thick bones and heavy skeletons. For example, a Tyrannosaurus Rex weighed 8 tons (7 tonnes), while an ostrich weighs only 200 pounds (90 kg).
How did these ancient beasts get off the ground? A study published in Nature Scientific Reports in 2017 concluded that the answer lies in dinosaur aerodynamics. Dinosaurs could fly because they had a large surface area on their wings that created enough lift to keep them airborne. Dinosaurs were not as agile as birds because they couldn’t flap their wings as quickly or change direction instantly. They didn’t need to be agile because they couldn’t maneuver like birds do today.
Coordination Between Multiple Body Parts
Flapping wing flight is a complex phenomenon that requires many different factors to be working in concert:
- A dinosaur must generate enough lift with its wings to rise into the air.
- It must be able to maintain its position once airborne.
- It must be able to slow down and land safely on solid ground rather than falling like a rock from a cliff or tree branch.
- A dinosaur needs to flap its wings at high speeds without losing balance or breaking bones when meeting other objects.
Achieving a high level of skill in these things requires perfect timing and coordination between the limbs. Not only does this include muscles that must contract or relax very quickly. The bones must bend smoothly so that they will not cause them to break under stress caused by rapid flapping and turning.
The first thing to know about dinosaur flight is that wings like those of modern birds did not power it. Instead, they flapped their arms and legs up and down. Scientists call this “push-pull” flight because it relies on two different types of motion:
- pushing down on the ground with one limb
- while pulling up with another
Scientists called it bat-like flight because it’s like how bats fly. The problem is that it requires a lot of energy to maintain altitude. Dinosaurs didn’t have arms or legs at all.
The most common theory is that dinosaurs had hollow bones, which allowed them to be lightweight and maintain buoyancy. It allowed them to float on air using their wings. Most scientists agree that dinosaurs did not have feathers or downy hair. Dinosaurs instead had scales that were also light enough to keep them airborne.
Scientists believe that dinosaurs had a network of blood vessels in their bodies. These vessels supply oxygenated blood to the muscles and organs. This system was a way to conserve energy by staying aloft for longer periods without tiring out as quickly.
Birds flapped their wings up and down to create lift and gain height off the ground. Dinosaurs used their large forelimbs to flap back and forth to create thrust at low speeds. This method allowed them to take off from land or water without running first like other animals do today.
We can finally see how this dinosaur technology works by using computer simulations. Scientists used foam rubber instead of paper airplanes to study the aerodynamics of pterosaurs.
Basic Aerodynamics: Newton’s Third Law
To understand how dinosaurs took off using their wings, we have first to understand some basic aerodynamics. An airplane begins to lift off once its engine thrust generates enough force against gravity to overcome its weight.
The law of conservation of momentum, also known as Newton’s Third Law: There is an equal and opposite reaction for every action. In this case, the action is the thrust generated by jet engines. The reaction is an upward movement of the plane (and passengers).
The flapping wings of some dinosaurs allowed them to fly from one place to another. The unique arrangement of dinosaur bones made their ability to fly possible.
Torque or Rotational Force
Dinosaur bones were specially designed to bend in more than one direction. They were much more flexible than other animals. This ability made it possible for them to flap their wings and take off into the air.
To understand how this works, you need to know about torque or rotational force. Torque is the tendency of a force applied at some distance from an axis of rotation to cause rotation around that axis.
Think about holding up your body weight with one hand while standing on one leg. It’s possible to keep your other leg straight and bend at the waist. If you try to do it while keeping both legs straight, you won’t be able to lift yourself at all—you will fall over.
Bird Evolution from Dinosaurian Ancestors
Flapping wing flight is an ancient technology that has evolved many times. Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, lived roughly 150 million years ago. It had feathers, a beak, and other traits indicating a dinosaurian ancestor.
The Archaeopteryx also had features more like modern birds than their dinosaurian ancestors. Stiffened tail feathers form a rod along the length of the tail. Elongated fingers formed its wings instead of the whole hand. It had a long hind limb but a shorter forelimb, and it only had three fingers on each hand (one less than all dinosaurs).
The transition from dinosaurs to birds involved three major changes in the structure of bones, muscles, and feathers. Theropod dinosaurs had hollow bones. They were light enough for flight but not strong enough for powerful flapping-wing flight. Evolution probably required several adaptations occurring over some time to make these changes:
- The elongation of fingers and shortening of bones in hands and arms meant these appendages could flap more efficiently.
- The formation of stiffened tail feathers helped stabilize bodies during flapping-wing flight.
Microraptor Gui – Four Wings, Four Legs?
Microraptor Gui is one of the most fascinating dinosaurs we’ve ever discovered. It has a lot to teach us about the ancient technology of flapping-wing flight.
Microraptor Gui was an agile little creature that lived in China around 130 million years ago. According to recent research, it had four wings and four legs, but it couldn’t fly like a bird or bat. Instead, it glided like a flying squirrel from a tree branch to a tree branch.
This dinosaur was about 1.5 feet long (0.46 meters), weighed about 1 pound (0.45 kilograms), and had feathers over its entire body except for its tail and legs. The feathers on its arms were short and rounded, while those on its body were long and pointed at the end—like the feathers on a modern vulture’s wings.
Microraptor Gui had long hind legs with sharp claws on their toes that helped them grip branches as they climbed through trees looking for food or searching for mates during the breeding season (from March through June, according to fossil evidence). They also had very big eyes that gave them excellent vision in low light conditions such as dawn or dusk, when most other animals would still be asleep.
Feathers and Scales – A Mesozoic Life in the Slow Lane
The Mesozoic Era was a time of great climate change. While it was not as drastic as what we are experiencing today, it profoundly affected the animals that lived during this period. The dinosaurs were no exception.
Many dinosaurs had feathers, but not all did. And if they did have them, they may or may not have been able to fly. Theropods like Velociraptors had feathers but couldn’t fly. They were too heavy and had long tails that would tangle in their feathers when they tried to flap their wings. Ornithomimosaurs did have wings that helped them glide from place to place. Some even had large air sacs in their bodies, allowing them to float through the air.
But not all dinosaurs had feathers. Dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus had scaly skin, not feathers. These huge herbivores needed tough skin to survive in areas with droughts or harsh winters. Particularly where food was scarce for months at a time (and sometimes even years). Their scales also helped them regulate their body temperature better than other dinosaurs who didn’t have such tough hides.
Final Thoughts: Dinosaurs were much more interesting than we could have ever imagined
Dinosaurs are some of the fascinating creatures in history, and they’re still a mystery to us today. But they didn’t just live on this Earth—they also lived in their world, with their own rules and technology.
It is especially true when it comes to flight. Dinosaurs couldn’t fly like birds or bats do today. They had another trick up their sleeves: flapping-wing flight!
In conclusion: What is a flapping-wing flight? It’s a type of flight that uses two wings. One big one above the body and one small one below it creates lift and pushes air down, which propels the animal forward through the air. Some scientists believe that these animals evolved from other flying animals, like pterosaurs, a group of reptiles that lived as dinosaurs.
This discovery is incredibly interesting because dinosaurs were much more diverse than we thought. They were also much more bird-like than we ever imagined.