Righting a 200 year old mistake: Armita Manafzadeh from Brown University talks with us about how her simulations of pterosaurs’ range-of-motion demonstrate that the ancient reptiles almost certainly couldn’t have flown like most paleontologists have long thought they did. Her open-access article, “ROM mapping of ligamentous constraints on avian hip mobility: implications for extinct ornithodirans” was published on May 23, 2018 with Kevin Padian in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B – Biological Science.

Debunking Pterosaurs Flight - Armita Manafzadeh
Debunking Pterosaurs Flight - Armita Manafzadeh
Debunking Pterosaurs Flight - Armita Manafzadeh Debunking Pterosaurs Flight - Armita Manafzadeh
@rwatkins says:
To close out our conversation, we asked Armita a speculative question: namely, whether there’s anything in science that she might believe is true, even if it’s not possible to prove it.
@rwatkins says:
Especially since she’s also taught a course in the design of robots, we were interested in learning what applications Armita thinks that the methods she used in her study might also have outside of the field of paleontology.
@rwatkins says:
Some paleontologists have taken exception with Armita’s conclusions regarding pterosaurs’ range of motion. So we asked her what it’s like … to be critiqued by more senior researchers.
@rwatkins says:
Next, Doug and I were also interested in learning what implications Armita’s methods and findings might have on the future study of pterosaurs by other paleontologists.
@rwatkins says:
So if pterosaurs didn’t fly like bats, we wondered: just how did they hold their legs during flight anyhow? And should we expect museums to be changing their pterosaur exhibits anytime soon?
@rwatkins says:
With its joint capsule intact, Armita found that quails’ hip bones could potentially assume a bat-like posture when flying, but only in the absence of hip ligaments. With the bone movement naturally restricted by ligaments, however, such a posture wasn’t viable, as she discusses next.
@rwatkins says:
Ryan and I were interested in getting under the hood of the technology used in “ROM” mapping, and learned from Armita that it involves at least three main systems: x-ray, digital video recording, and three-dimensional reconstruction of the x-rayed specimen, as she describes next.
@rwatkins says:
One of Armita’s goals with her study was to introduce an approach to measuring joint mobility called “Range Of Motion” mapping, as she explains after this short break.
@rwatkins says:
Despite her … innovative … approach to measuring chickens’ range of motion, Armita soon discovered that her D.I.Y. methods weren’t going to be sufficient. So the study moved from grocery-store chicken to quail, since their hip structure is more similar to that of pterosaurs. And instead of using protractor measurements, Armita used a one-of-a-kind, million-dollar x-ray system at Brown University. Ryan and I asked how the project went from a decidedly low-tech endeavor … to such a sophisticated one.
@rwatkins says:
Armita’s article includes details on how she carried out the dissections of bird joints. This got us wondering whether she learned to dissect animals as a biology undergrad, or if she gained those skills in graduate school … as well as if it’s a typical competence for paleontologists to develop.
@rwatkins says:
Doug and I first read a story about Armita’s study in Atlas Obscura, an online magazine which began in 2009 as a catalogue of unusual travel destinations, but since has expanded into other types of content, including surprisingly good science reporting. The article mentions a rather creative approach that Armita first took in exploring the range of motion of pterosaur’s joints, so we asked her to tell us about it.
@rwatkins says:
Armita was interested in examining how pterosaurs’ ligaments affected their possible flying postures. But because such ancient tissue typically isn’t available to paleontologists, Doug and I were curious to learn how modern birds could serve as a proxy for studying the range of their possible motions.
@rwatkins says:
Like the dismay some felt when Pluto’s status as a planet was taken away by astronomers in 2006, it may be disappointing to learn that – except for one particular species of the animal – paleontologists don’t call pterosaurs “pterodactyls” anymore. Ryan and I wondered: what other misunderstandings are prevalent about the reptiles.
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Websites and other resources


Press Coverage

UPIphys.org | Science Daily | Europa Press (Spanish) | Naked Science (Russian) | Eureka AlertGizmodo | Atlas Obscura | Brown University | Futurity


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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Manafzadeh, A.. (2018, July 24). Parsing Science – Debunking Pterosaurs Flight. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.6855110


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Armita Manafzadeh: If what we thought to be the case was true, that would be going against the prevailing opinion for about two centuries.

Doug Leigh: This is Parsing Science. The unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Doug Leigh.

Ryan Watkins: And I’m Ryan Watkins. Speaking with Neil deGrasse Tyson on a recent episode of StarTalk, the famous anthropologist Jane Goodall pointed out that – unlike the bones studied by her paleontologist mentor, Louis Leakey – “behavior doesn’t fossilize.” Unfortunately for paleontologists, connective tissue rarely does either, which is a pity, since it could tell us a lot about how prehistoric animals behaved.

Today we’re joined by Armita Manafzadeh from Brown University. she’ll discuss how her research into modern birds joints suggests that pterosaurs almost certainly couldn’t have flown with their legs splayed out wide apart behind them as they’re typically portrayed both in popular media as well as in scientific literature.

Anita Manafzadeh: Hi my name is Armita Manafzadeh, and I am a PhD student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of California Berkeley working with Kevin Padian who got me interested in paleontology. So, I’m coming to science from a paleontological background interested in the evolution of animals and also on how they move. Now, I’m coming to this department at Brown with a focus on morphology really trying to better understand the joints of animals and how those joints function at a biomechanical level. My ultimate goal is to be able to bring that paleontological and evolutionary perspective to this very mechanical problem and bring the two together to learn more about how animals moved and how that’s evolved over time.

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