The fossil record on its own does little to explain how long-gone animals actually lived. For example, how could pterosaurs—some of which had a wingspan almost the length of a schoolbus—be so much bigger than modern-day birds, yet still be capable of flight? A paleontologist at the University of Southern California, Michael Habib uses biology, physics, and computer modeling to answer such questions.
Guessing that pterosaurs might launch into the air differently than modern birds, Habib compared CT scans of both animals’ leg bones and then ran simulations to illustrate how they would have moved. His analysis suggested that, rather than leaping from two legs like birds, pterosaurs launched from all fours like bats. Though his theory provoked controversy at first, the recent discovery of fossilized flight tracks could confirm it. Habib also used computer modeling to calculate that pterosaurs could reach much larger sizes than previously known—a prediction validated when a giant pterosaur was unearthed last year. Now he’s using a similar approach to study the locomotion of early birds, the fins of extinct swimming reptiles, and the flight dynamics of tiny, bug-eating pterosaurs.
The applications of Habib’s research are surprisingly far-reaching: With colleagues, he is designing a stretched-material wing that mimics the structure of pterosaurs’ limbs and could reduce the vibrations that cause today’s gliders and parachutes to collapse.
But he’s most excited by the effect his work has had on museums, which have begun reworking dinosaur exhibits to incorporate his findings. “That made me squeal a little bit,” he says of the day he saw a company selling museum mounts of pterosaurs launching from all fours. “That’s like the paleontology Nobel Prize.”
The article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Popular Science.