Dragons in Paradise by Henry M. Morris, Ph.D.
DUBLIN -- The giant reptiles that flew above the earth until about 65 million years ago could have grown to twice the size originally thought with wingspans of at least 18 meters, a paleontologist said on Thursday.
That would be almost the same width as the 64 foot fully extended wingspan of an F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft and roughly five times bigger than an albatross, which ranks among the birds with the largest wingspans in the modern world.
Dr David Martill of the University of Portsmouth in southern England, said his research on pterosaur wings appeared to solve the problem of how such enormous creatures managed to take to the skies and stay there.
Recent fossil finds in Mexico and Israel added weight to the theory that this prehistoric, flying reptile, which became extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs, could have been much bigger than many had realized.
"We haven't officially announced this yet but it might have been two times bigger," he told journalists at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual festival in the Irish capital.
Martill said fellow academic and collaborator Dr Eberhard "Dino" Frey of the Natural History museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, had recently found distinctive fossilized footprints in Mexico pointing to a creature with a wingspan "in excess of 18 meters (60 ft)."
"Even though they are just fragments they are bloody big fragments," he said of the fossils. "We also have finger bones with really rather magnificent diameters."
Despite its size, Martill believes his studies of the bone structure and tissue of a pterosaur wing show it could have flown "really rather elegantly."
"The wing membrane is really very, very thin," he said, adding that the samples were about half a millimeter thick. "One of the other things we found out that was excitingly new was a very different shoulder joint."
The elaborate structure of the wing, more like that of a bat than a bird, combined with hollow bones and a body not much bigger than a human torso would have kept weight to a minimum.
"One imagines that the take off problems were less ... particularly if you add the fact that they were very, very lightly constructed to this enormous wing membrane area."
Martill said he had established that the wing was locked into the bottom of the body rather than the top, providing a greater surface area to benefit from the thermal air currents that give lift during flight.
More cumbersome would have been the neck, stretching to three meters in length and attached to a skull that could have added an additional two meters. Although not very aerodynamic, it might have allowed the pterosaur to pick up prey from the sea without flying dangerously close, Martill suggested.
As for why they grew so big, it could have been a function of age: "One of the reasons might be that they just kept on growing," rather than reaching an adult size when growth stops.
The ancient giant camel bone on the right is much larger than those of today's camels (Keystone)
Researchers from Basel and Zurich universities have discovered a new species of giant camel that lived thousands of years ago.
Bones uncovered in Syria reveal that the animal was more than three metres tall - closer in size to a giraffe than a modern camel.
"Between July and August we found several giant camel bones from different animals, which confirmed that this was a new species," said Jean-Marie Le Tensorer, professor of prehistory at Basel University.
The scientists unearthed more than 20 bone fragments from different layers of rock, leading them to believe that the animals had lived over a period of thousands, or even tens of thousands of years.
The bone fragments – from the foot, shoulder and jaw - have been dated back to 100,000 years ago. All are around twice the normal size for a camel.
Tools made from animal foot bones were found close to the site, indicating that humans had hunted these large animals, the scientists said.
"This find is sensational as it could help us understand the evolution of the camel," said anthropologist Peter Schmid of Zurich University.
Scientists know very little about the history of the camel, and are unsure whether it or the one-humped dromedary comes first in the evolutionary order.
The discovery was made near the village of El Kown in central Syria, close to the site of one of the oldest human settlements ever excavated.
swissinfo with agencies