Pterosaurs were the first vertebrate animals to evolve powered flight and conquer the skies. They did so nearly 100 million years before any birds flew. Pterosaurs ruled the air for more than 160 million years before vanishing along with the (non-bird) dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. Over that incredible reign, the pterosaur dynasty evolved some of the most extreme adaptations of any animals, living or extinct. The smallest was the size of sparrow while the largest had wingspans equal to the height of a telephone pole. Some of these winged predators had heads three to four times longer than their bodies, making them, in essence, flying jaws. Pterosaurs lived across every ocean and every continent on Earth. Pterosaurs pushed the limits of vertebrate anatomy and performance, and they have left a frustratingly fragmentary fossil record, leaving us with just a glimmer of their former glory and a host of questions. New fossil discoveries, along with key perspectives from biomechanics, have provided significant recent insights into how such giants evolved, launched, flew, and lived. In this presentation, we will consider how a unique combination of evolutionary history, existing adaptations, environmental factors, and chance events led to the evolution of the greatest air giants to ever fly the Earth.
Dr. Michael Habib is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California and a Research Associate in both the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He is a paleontologist exploring the relationships between animal structure and motion, using a combination of comparative anatomy, art, and engineering. His work on animal launch provided the first robust explanation of giant size in pterosaurs and led to a fundamental reassessment of the mechanical limits of flying animals. His work was featured as one of the top 100 science discoveries of 2009 by Discover Magazine. In 2014, Popular Science recognized Dr. Habib as one of their Brilliant Ten. Dr. Habib has authored numerous scientific papers, appeared in a diverse array of television specials, worked as a scientific editor for National Geographic Magazine, and written for The Conversation UK, Scientific American, and Universe Today. He is an experienced animation and creature design consultant, having worked on over a dozen projects, including Beast Legends, Clash of the Dinosaurs, Dinosaur Revolution, Monster Tracker, and Walking with Dinosaurs. His current book, Flying Monsters: Illustrating Flying Vertebrates, illustrated by legendary creature artist Terryl Whitlatch, will be published in 2020 by Design Studio Press.