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Re: Pterosaur size (Was: Great in the air, not so good underwater)

On Monday, December 11, 2006, at 11:34 AM, don ohmes wrote:

Yep. Stuff gets lost, too. So, some correction and re-iteration.

1). The O2 pulse hypothesis calls for a 12-15% minimum increase in _overall_ air density, resulting from an approximate doubling of a paleo-O2 partial pressure of 15%, with a postulated max O2 atmospheric fraction of 35% (if memory serves). I used 10-12% density increase because it is a conservative figure relative to the hypothesis. My remarks were directed only to flight benefits derived from the increase in air density, _not_ to O2 related mass-specific power effects.

Ah, my apologies for the misinterpretation. 12-15% in overall density might be enough to matter, but it's still too limited to account for the gap in size between birds and pterosaurs. And again, it does not need to given the apparent launch mode differences. I admit though, that 12-15% is enough to make a difference (whereas the 3% I thought you were implying would not). Incidentally, a 35% fraction of O2 should be a big deal for the insect life around at the time.

2). The reason I used the O2 pulse hypothesis is because it is the only
published, peer-reviewed geochemical mechanism for increasing air density at any
point in post-Archean time that I know of. Note that density is a function of total air mass, and can be independent of composition.

Of course, but in the case at hand I think the fact that it is O2 that contributes the most to the density increase is notable, because it would have important ramifications for mass-specific power (especially in insects).

4). "Atmospheric effects" as Habib aptly puts it, do _not_ exclude such things as novel launch systems or climate regimes (see Campbell re Argentavis evolution and takeoff), anymore than the K/Pg event means that dino diversity was not already in decline from other mechanisms. In my opinion, the more extreme animals would have needed all the help they could get, even at 1.2 atms. Now, at 1.5 or 2 atms... }: D

I agree that any help would be useful, but I don't think pterosaurs required the assistance of an enriched atmosphere. As Jim already pointed out, they would most likely be perfectly viable in the modern conditions. So atmospheric effects probably made a slight difference in flight speeds and kinematics, but were not a prerequisite for large size as seen in pterodactyloids.

5). It has been 10 years since I searched the data relative to birds. My impression at that time was that higher apparent wingloads were the rule in paleo-birds of pigeon-size or larger, not the exception. Limnofregata ( from Storrs Olson) is perhaps the most accessible example of what I mean. Please correct me if I am wrong. Must be a wealth of new material.

I don't think there currently stands a pattern in wing loading of extinct birds one way or the other. Limnofregata has a higher wing loading than a modern frigatebird, certainly, but that is to be expected: frigates have evolved from a more highly loaded ancestry, and so stem members of their lineage should have intermediate loadings. There are plenty of highly loaded and lightly loaded fossil birds. They cover about the same range of loadings as modern birds. Large pseudodontorns may have been slightly more heavily loaded than modern albatrosses, but not so much for it to be particularly odd or notable (beyond the notable fact that they were very large).

7). I've seen (Campbell's original) estimates on Argentavis of 120 kg. My impression at the time was that his revision to 76 kg was prompted mainly by 'aerodynamic objections', but I well could be wrong. Re-do's are always good...

Yes, the 120 kg estimate seems very high. A 120 kg volant bird might be possible, but it would depend greatly on the ecotype, launch mode, and planform (all of which are interconnected).

PS-- How big would a ptero or bird have to be to elicit a "OK, these guy's had to have had some help, because there is just no way in standard atmosphere..."? Actually a serious question.

Jim already pitched in on this for pterosaurs (far better than I could). For birds, it depends a great deal on the planform and launch mode involved (which will be related to ecotype, etc). Using the scaling relationships I have for pseudodontorns (and the bone strength ratio model I've been using for their mass estimates lately), I would cautiously list about 75 kg as the rough limit. (The largest species actually known seems to fall around 60 kg). For continental, convective soarers (ie. Argentavis like forms), the limit in standard atmosphere would be substantially higher (probably over 90 kg), but I can't say much at the moment.


--Mike H.