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New Research Answers Questions About Pterosaur's Big Head


One hundred million years ago, one of the flying creatures that cast a shadow over dinosaurs roaming the Earth was the azhdarchid. Imagine a head like a pelican sort of and an improbably long neck, which should have snapped if the laws of anatomy held. New research out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explains how the creature managed to hold its head up.

Cariad Williams is a Ph.D. student in the entomology department there and is the first author of the paper. Welcome to the program.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So azhdarchids sounds kind of like a flying giraffe. And what's remarkable about this animal is that its head and neck were powerful enough to swoop up baby dinosaurs as a meal. Tell us what you found inside its vertebrae.

WILLIAMS: So the structure that we found inside the cervical vertebrae was an helical arrangement of spokes around a central tube that connects to the vertebral wall. And it kind of looks like the wheel of a bicycle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How interesting. And why is that neck anatomy important?

WILLIAMS: So the spokes that we discussed and that's actually helically arranged around the central tube - just an additional 50 of these straps increase the buckling load by up to 90%.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So basically, these tiny spokes almost double the vertebrae's ability to carry weight, right?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that's fascinating. How did you sort of come across these bones?

WILLIAMS: So they're found in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco that approximately 100 to 110 million years old. And my previous supervisor, David Martill, and my friend Roy Smith, who's also a co-author on the paper, actually went out to Morocco and brought home some specimens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, your study was the first one to make this discovery about the neck anatomy. Why do you think other researchers didn't study this before?

WILLIAMS: I think maybe it's probably lack of technology - just that our university was lucky enough to have a CT scanner on site. And I know that there are some universities that actually don't have this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It seems like this discovery could have major engineering applications.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. We think that it definitely has some aeronautical engineering applications.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me, why is this animal so fascinating to you?

WILLIAMS: Just the mere size of it, with a wingspan of about 20 feet long. And being able to carry a big head on a long neck - it just doesn't seem plausible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While flying in the air (laughter).

WILLIAMS: Yeah, exactly - flying in the air. But the thickness of the bone was actually only approximately about 1 millimeter in thickness. And so we thought that it wouldn't even be able to carry a head like that. There would just be no way. But with the addition of these spokes, it actually tells us a lot more about the biomechanical engineering of these animals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does it feel like to make a discovery like this?

WILLIAMS: It's very exciting. When I first found it, I was so excited. And I went straight to my friend and my supervisor and told them they had to come and see this. And we spent the entire day talking about the implications and what we were going to do next with this study.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask you how you got into studying dinosaurs?

WILLIAMS: So my parents used to take me to Florida and to Orlando. And in the Animal Kingdom Park, they have the dinosaur dig site. And I spent all of my time there digging up dinosaur bones. And then when we came home, I would watch all of David Attenborough's programs, and I just became fascinated. And since the age of about 4, I've wanted to be a paleontologist.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love that story.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is a great story for kids everywhere (laughter).

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Cariad Williams, a Ph.D. student in the entomology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.