How Did Pterosaurs Fly?

Part of the Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs exhibition.

Virtual Wind Tunnel 700.309
Visit the exhibition to experiment with principles of pterosaur aerodynamics in an interactive virtual tunnel.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Flight allowed pterosaurs to travel long distances, exploit new habitats, escape predators, and swoop down from above to seize their prey. They spread across the world and branched out into an enormous array of species, including the largest animals ever to take wing.


Like other flying animals, pterosaurs generated lift with their wings. They needed to perform the same kinds of motions as birds and bats, but their wings evolved independently, developing their own distinct aerodynamic structure.

Nemicolopterus 700.309
Nemicolopterus crypticus was recently discovered in northeastern China, in a region once dotted with wetlands, lakes, and forests. This tiny pterosaur may have darted through forests hunting for insects.
© AMNH 2014

Pterosaurs flew with their forelimbs. Their long, tapering wings evolved from the same body part as our arms. As pterosaurs’ arm and hand bones evolved for flying, they lengthened, and the bones of one finger—the equivalent of our ring finger—became extraordinarily long. Like the mast on a ship, these bones supported the wing surface, a thin flap of skin that was shaped like a sail.


Although many animals can glide through the air, pterosaurs, birds, and bats are the only vertebrates that have evolved to fly by flapping their wings. All three groups descended from animals that lived on the ground, and their wings evolved in a similar way: their forelimbs gradually became long, bladelike, and aerodynamic.

Istiodactylus 700.309
The medium-sized Istiodactylus evolved during the Cretaceous, and its contemporaries included the largest flying animals ever known, such as Pteranodon longiceps and Quetzalcoatlus northropi.
© AMNH 2014

Large pterosaurs needed strong limbs to get off the ground, but thick bones would have made them too heavy. The solution? A pterosaur’s wing bones were hollow tubes, with walls no thicker than a playing card. Like bird bones, they were flexible and lightweight, while strengthened by internal struts.


Recent discoveries show that pterosaur wing membranes were more than simple flaps of skin. Long fibers extended from the front to the back of the wings forming a series of stabilizing supports, so the membranes could be stretched taut, or folded up like a fan. Separate muscle fibers helped pterosaurs adjust the tension and shape of their wings, and veins and arteries kept the wings nourished with blood.

Rhamphorhynchus 700.309
Rhamphorhynchus's long tail had a stiff flap of skin called a vane at the end that stabilized flight. Some scientists think this membrane faced sideways, like a fish tail, and helped prevent rocking from side to side. Others think it lay flat, like a paddle, and helped the flying pterosaur control its elevation.
© AMNH 2014

The exhibition includes a remarkable fossil of Rhamphorhynchus muensteri, discovered in Germany in 2001, which features wing tissues so well preserved that scientists have been able to see fine details in their structure. Under ultraviolet light, researchers detected layers of skin threaded with blood vessels, muscles, and long fibers that stiffened the wing. Because of the shadowy color of the wing membrane, paleontologists call this fossil Dark Wing.

Visitors with Dark Wing Fossil 700.309
The Pterosaurs exhibition includes a remarkable fossil of Rhamphorhynchus muensteri known as Dark Wing, which has allowed scientists to see fine details of pterosaur wing structure.
© AMNH/D. Finnin


See the Dark Wing fossil, on view in the United States for the first time, as well as a model of Quetzalcoatlus northopi, a pterosaur with a 33-foot wingspan, in Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.