The new flight distance estimate for pterosaurs is based on the latest models of the ancient animals’ wingspans, wing shapes, body masses, and fat capacities.
“The tricky part was deciding how much fuel they can carry,” Habib said. For example, “migrating birds lose about 50 percent of their body weight during long migrations.”
But the needs of pterosaurs may have been different, because their anatomy suggests they flew differently than modern-day birds. (Take an animal-migrations quiz.)
For instance, scientists had previously used the largest living bird, the wandering albatross, to model pterosaur flight. But “we don’t expect [pterosaurs] to have the same flapping frequency as an albatross, nor do we expect that they soared the same way as an albatross,” Habib said.
The 10,000-mile flight estimate may even be a little conservative, said Habib, who presented his work this week at the annual Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Pittsburgh.
“The lowest range estimates were about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers), while the highest were around 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers),” he said. “In the middle range, where all the numbers lined up and I had high confidence, you get about 10,000 miles.”
The findings would seem to contradict past studies that suggested large pterosaurs had problems just getting off the ground due to their massive sizes.