Specialized brain helped ancient reptiles fly and hunt

ATHENS, Ohio Pterosaurs, which emerged as the first flying vertebrates during the age of dinosaurs, could grow as large as an airplane but soared through the skies with ease. New research suggests that a specialized brain and inner ear structure helped these ancient reptiles to fly and target their prey, a finding that could give scientists insight into the evolution of the brain and visual system. Compared to modern reptiles such as alligators and lizards, pterosaurs -- commonly known as pterodactyls -- had a complicated neural system that allowed them to make deft use of massive wings and adapt to an airborne lifestyle, said Lawrence Witmer, an associate professor of anatomy in Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine and lead author of the study, which will be published in the Oct. 30 issue of the journal Nature.

"These comparisons generally inform us about the rigors of flight and how animals make it work," said Witmer, whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Fossils of pterosaurs, which lived during the Mesozoic Era, are rare and often badly crushed. But Witmer's colleagues recently obtained nearly intact skulls of Rhamphorhynchus, a small species with a 3-foot wingspan and 4-inch-long skull that lived 150 million years ago in what is now Germany, and Anhanguera, a larger creature with a 14-foot wingspan and a 20-inch skull that lived 115 million years ago in what is now Brazil. Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University and Jonathan Franzosa and Timothy Rowe of the University of Texas ran the skulls through a high-resolution CT scanner. Witmer and the Texas collaborators used the scans and sophisticated computer graphics software to reconstruct the brain cavity and inner ear canals. The scientists compared the scans to alligators and birds, which are the closest living relatives of pterosaurs.

"Pterosaurs and birds developed flight independently, but they're fairly closely related--birds are dinosaurs and ptero

Contact: Andrea Gibson
Ohio University

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