when smart-winged reptiles ruled the skies

Pterosaurs, the now-extinct flying reptiles that once dominated the skies (and bad caveman movies), may have been accomplished and agile aerial predators, report researchers in the Oct. 30 Nature. Lawrence Witmer of the University of Ohio and his colleagues ran pterosaur skulls through a high-resolution scanner to obtain digital 3-D reconstructions of the creatures’ brains. Overall, they found them rather birdlike, but the pterosaurs had much larger floccular lobes, a part of the brain that controls movement. (The floccular lobes took up 7.5 percent of a pterosaur’s total brain mass, compared to less than 2 percent in birds.) The researchers propose that the lobes were so big so they could gather information from the pterosaurs’ vast and sensitive wing membranes, helping them build up a detailed map of the forces the wings detected. “Equipped with their `smart’ wings, pterosaurs would have excellent flight control. Despite their antiquity, they could even have outperformed modern birds and bats,” wrote David Unwin of Berlin’s Humboldt University, in an accompanying commentary.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 11/04/2003.
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