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Metro Science: Wine glasses, joints that ache when it rains, and the biggest animals that ever flew

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The Quetzalcoatlus had a 3-metre skull, 11-metre wingspan — wider than a tennis court — and stood as tall as a male giraffe

Warpaintcobra / iStockphoto

The Quetzalcoatlus had a 3-metre skull, 11-metre wingspan — wider than a tennis court — and stood as tall as a male giraffe

In the dinosaur ages, skies were filled with pterosaurs: Winged reptiles, including pterodactyls, ranging in size from house cat to giraffe. After their extinction 66 million years ago, nothing so large flew again until humans launched hot air balloons. Now new science, and newly discovered fossils, are transforming our understanding of the biggest and weirdest animals ever to fly.

TREASURE TROVE

Last month, the journal Science reported the discovery of more than 200 pterosaur eggs and 16 embryos in China’s Gobi Desert. Previously only a handful were known to science. The fossils appear to be the species Hamipterus, a medium-sized pterosaur with a 3-metre wingspan. Scientists have already learned a ton from this discovery: The eggs were concentrated in a group, and distributed through many layers of sediment from different time periods. This suggests that, like many kinds of birds, they nested together in large groups and returned to the same breeding grounds over and over.

MOTHER OF MONSTERS

Imagine you’re walking around the Cretaceous forest, minding your own business, and suddenly it gets dark. You look up and there’s a Quetzalcoatlus, the grandest of the pterosaurs, blocking the sun. It had a 3-metre skull and an 11-metre wingspan, wider than a tennis court, and stood as tall as a male giraffe. But thanks to its hollow bones, it weighed just 200 kg, compared to the giraffe’s 1,200.

WINGED ENIGMA

The question of how something so massive, muscular and heavy as Quetzalcoatlus could have flown has puzzled scientists for generations. People wondered if they got a head start by jumping off high cliffs and flapping their wings. It seemed possible that they took off on two feet, like birds, but studies by biomechanics researcher Michael Habib showed that would have shattered its femur. The most recent models suggest they took off using all four limbs, somewhat like bats do, launching their back limbs over their front ones.

SCIENCE STORIES

Knee surgery can be a practical cure for pain.

TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE

Knee surgery can be a practical cure for pain.

Knees that hurt when it rains — or do they?

Your knees are aching — there must be rain coming on, right? Wrong. A study in the British Medical Journal of 11 million doctor visits found no relationship between the day's weather and the number of people seeking help for joint or back pain. The results did not change if there were several rainy days in a row, and were no different among arthritis patients and everyone else.

Pouring more

Too much cheer? Maybe. Wine glass size ballooned from 66 mL in 1700s to 180mL in 1950 to 450mL today, a new study of 411 English goblets finds.

SOUND SMART: Your science vocabulary word for the week

DEFINITION
Phylogeny is the history of the evolution of a species or group — it’s your biological family tree, with all your ancestors.

USE IT IN A SENTENCE
​Deborah’s dance steps are so inelegant, I’m convinced the gazelle is farther back in her phylogeny than it is in mine.

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