October 22, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Pterosaur Flight Design Confounds Evolutionary Theory

Is natural selection really capable of optimizing flight
four different ways? If so, it must have godlike powers.


As we shall see momentarily, “evolved” has become a magic word of no scientific value. It is a placeholder for ignorance, a mindless fart, a habit-forming drug that makes a scientist feel good without having to think.

A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [1] claims that “Pterosaurs evolved a muscular wing–body junction providing multifaceted flight performance benefits: Advanced aerodynamic smoothing, sophisticated wing root control, and wing force generation.

Think of the burdens the authors placed on that word “evolved.” Pterosaurs (of which there are numerous and diverse species) somehow came up with a “muscular wing-body junction” that just happened to confer “multifaceted flight performance benefits” on those extinct flying marvels. Three of the benefits are listed in the subtitle, but there would have to be many more: new cell types, new tissue types, new attachments for the tissues, and the know-how in the brain to use all this new equipment. There is no indication in the paper that any of these innovations happened gradually. Nor is there any indication that they arose by beneficial mutations (which are rare) or by coordinated mutations (which are nearly impossible; Evolution News 18 Aug 2021).

Do the authors give any clues about how this happened? No; they talk about the wonderful engineering in pterosaur wings, then use the word “evolution” two more times, as if their explanatory work is done just by saying the word.

  • This study underscores the value of using new instrumentation to fill knowledge gaps in pterosaur flight anatomy and evolution.
  • Our study underscores the power of new instrumentation in improving our understanding of pterosaur flight anatomy and evolution.

But how much “knowledge” was conveyed by the word evolution? How much understanding was gained? Apparently none, or they would have explained how.

Look what Nature has to say about this finding in its October 18th summary:

How ancient reptiles were streamlined for flight
Pterosaurs, which soared overhead while dinosaurs stomped the land, had muscles
that provided an aerodynamic profile.

The short piece does not mention evolution. It talks about how soft tissue details were preserved in the fossil from Germany, and what the muscle tissues visible in the fossil show about flight performance:

Michael Pittman and Luke Barlow at the University of Hong Kong and their colleagues examined a pterosaur fossil from southern Germany whose bones are arranged as they would have been when the animal was alive — and that also contains preserved soft tissue. The researchers illuminated the specimen with violet laser light, which excited soft-tissue atoms preserved as minerals. These minerals then glowed pink, revealing minute structural details around the base of the neck, the shoulders and the upper arms.

Bats use fur to smooth the connection between their wings and body; birds use feathers. Pterosaurs apparently used muscle — possibly including the trapezius and deltoid muscles — which eased airflow over the junction and might have had the added advantage of providing fine wing control.

Insects, too

Neither paper mentions flight in insects, but since insects like houseflies do as well or better with “fine wing control” and exceptional aerodynamic performance so as to land upside down on ceilings, they undoubtedly have similar traits. They use some of their chitin for the wing-to-body attachments that give them optimal performance.

Speaking of insects, a preprint in bioRxiv this week [2] addressed the problem of gain and loss of wings in stick insects (Phasmatodea), which has been a sticking point for years. They studied 500 species of these insects. Try as they might, the authors could not get around the conclusion that wings evolved multiple times in just this family. Why? They were obligated to fit these well-adapted creatures to a Darwinian phylogenetic tree. Their conclusion violates Dollo’s Law, which says that once a complex trait is lost, it cannot evolve again. It makes no sense in evolutionary theory, but they believe this absurd conclusion anyway. No other explanation is permissible in this era of evolutionary thinking.

How did powered flight originate four times in different animal groups?

This means that all four types of animals capable of powered flight—completely unrelated by Darwin’s tree—have very different methods for achieving the same “advanced” aerodynamics via a wing-to-shoulder attachment mechanism. Bats use fur, pterosaurs use muscle, birds use feathers, and insects use chitin. It would beggar belief to think that Darwin’s Stuff Happens Law came up with even one instance of this superb engineering design. But four? If an intelligent Creator wished to falsify evolutionary beliefs from the outset, it would be hard to think of a better way for him to do so.

Here are some of the statements in the PNAS paper about what these muscle attachments do for flight performance:

  • sophisticated control of their wing root
  • contributions to wing elevation and/or anterior wing motion during the flight stroke
  • The skeletal muscles could have contributed to continuous, active camber and flutter control throughout the wing stroke or reduced span.
  • Birds and bats also use muscles within the wing membrane for camber and flutter control. Such additional membrane control is also important at high speeds in flapping flight, as some living membrane flyers, such as bats, achieve speeds over 25 m/s. We therefore propose that pterosaurs made even more extensive use of muscle-mediated regional wing surface control on account of their single-spar membrane wing morphology.
  • We observed that the fairing in BSP 1937 I 18 is formed of soft tissue body contours. Such a fairing muscle supports the aerodynamic requirements of the mobile insectivore ecology proposed for this pterodactyloid pterosaur. This would have benefitted from the fairing muscle’s role in aerodynamic smoothing, camber and flutter control as well as wing force generation.

Bob Yirka at Phys.org says that this muscle attachment design “likely gave the flying reptiles a very high degree of wing power and flight control.

Pterosaurs varied in size from those that could fit in the palm of a hand to ones as large as giraffes. The muscle attachment would have had to be tailored for each species under a huge range of wing sizes and flight constraints. From Witton, 2013, p. 250.

If blind, aimless, purposeless, chance-driven natural selection is capable of achieving sophisticated flight performance four times in four very different flying animals in four very different ways, it must have godlike powers. It must be capable of genius, foresight, and engineering know-how. Our best engineers cannot mimic the flight performance of birds and bats and insects and (presumably) pterosaurs. How on earth did evolution do it? Merely repeating “it evolved” is an empty phrase, devoid of explanation, conveying no knowledge or understanding. Scientific writing would do well to abandon this thoughtless habit of saying “it evolved.”


[1] Pitman, Barlow, Kaye and Habib, “Pterosaurs evolved a muscular wing–body junction providing multifaceted flight performance benefits: Advanced aerodynamic smoothing, sophisticated wing root control, and wing force generation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 2, 2021 118 (44) e2107631118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2107631118.

[2] Sara Bank and Sven Bradler, “A second view on the evolution of flight in stick and leaf insects (Phasmatodea).” bioRxiv preprint server, doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.10.12.464101.

Worse, “it evolved” is a mantra that conjures up evil spirits hiding inside the idol of the Bearded Buddha.

Adapted from an image of a Crystal Ball Mister (source CostumePub).

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  • R2-U2 says:

    Students who take courses taught by a pro-evolution instructor (who loves to discuss fossils) should be encouraged to ask in front of his/her classmates: “How does evolution explain pterosaurs gradually developing fully functional wings, with their long bony fourth finger? Is there any fossil evidence for their transitional forms?”

    The same question applies to bats from a supposed non-winged ancestor.

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