David Attenborough Takes Wing With Pterosaurs

David Attenborough has produced dozens of shows and books about how plants and animals live. But his latest, Flying Monsters 3D, takes a look at creatures that have been extinct for around 65 million years—pterosaurs, or flying reptiles—and examines why they may have evolved to fly.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Sir David Attenborough really needs no introduction. He's been your guide for 50 years, showing and explaining the natural world around the globe. He got and gets to go everywhere. You've seen "Life on Earth," "The Private Life of Plants" or "Planet Earth." Now in a new big-screen film, he's dialing back the clock, showing us fossils and 3-D renderings of creatures no one has ever seen.

They have been extinct for 65 million years, the pterosaurs, giant flying reptiles. The film is "Flying Monsters 3-D," and it opens next week at science centers and museums around the country, and if you'd like to talk with Sir David, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our Facebook page or our website at sciencefriday.com.

As I say, Sir David Attenborough is the writer and narrator of the new giant-screen film "Flying Monsters 3-D." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Sir David.

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Thank you very much indeed.

FLATOW: You know, it seems like nobody ever talks about the pterosaurs. What got you interested in them?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I think just that really. I mean, everybody goes on about the dinosaurs, and they were stunning and marvelous, and I never understand why they don't also talk about those huge creatures with 40-foot wingspan, with hairy, skinny wings that were flapping above the heads of the dinosaurs. I think they're the most remarkable of creatures. Certainly nothing else has ever paralleled them in terms of flying.

FLATOW: Of course there was that science-fiction movie called "Rodan" back in the late '50s, where, I think, we got a brief look at one of them.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, you occasionally see them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, you occasionally see them. I mean, in the films about the lost world, they always flap about. And if you remember, in that story, Professor Challenger found the nest of one. So that was one - certainly one of the times when they did appear. But by and large, they've been overshadowed by the dinosaur, and I don't think that's fair.

FLATOW: Well, were they flying dinosaurs, or were they flying reptiles? What exactly were they?

ATTENBOROUGH: They were flying reptiles. They were - they belonged to the same huge group as the dinosaurs, but they're quite different from them. I mean, they're as different as, what, I don't know, carnivores are from - like tigers are from elephants.

FLATOW: And in "Flying Monsters," you talk about how pterosaurs evolved over tens of millions of years. It sort of makes human evolution like a sliver of time compared to that.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah, they started off like lizards, with long tales and skinny, flapping wings, which were formed of skin attached to the side of the body and down towards the knees and the ankles. And they started off quite small, but over the millions of years, they got a bit bigger, and then they started to improve their flying techniques.

And very surprisingly perhaps, they actually reduced and finally lost the tail, and that enabled them to get much more aerobatic in the sky but required much more complex controls, which they nevertheless achieved.

FLATOW: You said one of the key reasons for the evolution of their body structure is that the early pterosaurs could not walk very well.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, they had the back of the wing - I mean, birds have feathers, which are really remarkable structures. They're very rigid on the wings. So they provide an aerofoil, a surface which holds the air and keeps them suspended in the air.

Pterosaurs didn't have that. They developed skin, which ran from their wrists down to their ankles, and if it's attached to the ankles, when you get on the ground, well of course then it's rather an impediment trying to get around if you've got a great gown, as it were, tied to your ankles.

FLATOW: There's a really cool scene in the movie where a fossil comes alive using computer animation that puts the pieces of the fossil together. It's one where you're at the bottom of the steps with that fossil. You know, you've been making films for a long time. This is the kind of stuff you just could never do before, could you?

ATTENBOROUGH: It's quite true that the computer generated images, CGI, have improved hugely over the last decade. I mean, 20 years ago, the animations that you saw of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures were sort of slightly clumsy. They were - you know, you thought you didn't really believe them. They were kind of things from the nursery, almost.

But over the years, animations have got better and better and better, and now the animation of the pterosaurs I think is the most spectacular animation I've ever seen. I can say that because it's got nothing to do with me. I mean, it's done by a team of hugely gifted artists who are artists in computer imaging.

FLATOW: And it's very instructive on how to look at a fossil, you know, and put it together in the right order. All these bones lying around, and the animation shows you how to piece it together. I thought that was really neat.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I'm glad you did. I mean, I think that it's only too easy to turn the dinosaurs or the pterosaurs into, I don't know, dreamlike creatures. And it's - the exciting thing to me about them is how you can look at a fossil, a bit of bone in a rock and look at it in such a way that enables you to reconstruct an animal in quite considerable detail.

That's the remarkable thing, as far as I'm concerned. I enjoy that. Then I really believe that what I'm looking at really did exist.

FLATOW: And you were instrumental in writing and producing this film?

ATTENBOROUGH: I wrote it, yes.

FLATOW: And it was very well-done. And in one segment, which I knew nothing about because I'm not - you know, as I say, I don't think people know very much about the pterosaurs. You talk about a 19th-century woman named Mary Anning, who lived in the southern coast of England, a great fossil hunter and, sort of, the person who started this whole thing off. Tell us about her.

ATTENBOROUGH: She was one of the very earliest, and she was also one of the earliest who were finding things, the great swimming reptiles, the seagoing reptiles, the ichthyosaurs and the plesiosaurs. She collected all those, too. In fact, it is - she also collected one of the - well, she collected the very first pterosaur that was found in Britain.

There was one found earlier, slightly earlier, in Germany, but Mary Anning was one of the great pioneer paleontologists.

FLATOW: Now, in the film, you talk about birds with feathers supplanting, being more successful than the pterosaurs. Is there some controversy about whether they actually lived at the same time?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes, I mean, you could never prove it one way or the other, really, but the fact remains that towards the end of their reign, the pterosaurs began to reduce in type and number. And at the same time, there were birds around which were increasing in type and number.

Now, it's dangerous to say - it didn't necessarily prove that this and that were - because they happened at the same time, necessarily caused that at the same time. But nonetheless, you can see quite reasons why that could be the case.

FLATOW: Talking with Sir David Attenborough, whose new film "Flying Monsters 3-D" will be opening soon at a science center near you. Let's go to Chicago. Kate(ph), hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KATE: Hi, thank you. Hello, Sir Attenborough and Mr. Flatow. Thank you very much for taking my call. I have a question on the size of these flying reptiles. I always thought there was a limit to the size of birds that could fly. How could they fly if they were so large?

ATTENBOROUGH: Very good question. The - we can find all sorts of theoretical answers to that, but what we do know is that they certainly did. When they first found the bone of these huge things, the 40-foot wingspan ones, which were found down in Texas some 40 years ago, quite a lot of paleontologists said impossible, it couldn't be true because they didn't find - at that stage, they didn't find the whole wing. They just found some of the bones of the wrist, which were three, four, five, six, seven times bigger than any other pterosaur bone known of that kind.

And so there were lots of arguments from people saying no, you can't scale up in that way. But since then, we have found a lot of complete skeletons of these huge, giant creatures. And the fact, it does cause a great problem, as you say, about how, to an aeronautical engineer, about how they did it.

Well, one of the things that we're pretty sure they did is that they actually were gliders more than flappers. They could flap but not very effectively, and the - they probably lived on cliffs and launched themselves into the air, and once there, like an albatross, they could keep going, going from thermal to thermal, for tens if not hundreds of miles.

FLATOW: And you speculate - and you're up there in a glider with one, so to speak, that...

ATTENBOROUGH: So to speak, yes.

FLATOW: That they could have flown over 1,000 miles, glided across oceans, perhaps.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, we know that like an albatross, an albatross is able to glide for thousands of miles just taking advantage of the upward currents bouncing off the surface of a turbulent sea. And so we know that that is a possibility, and it seems quite possible that those huge pterosaurs, the most famous of which is one that's called quetzalcoatlas, after the reptile dragon god of the Aztec people.

And we know - we can be pretty sure that it certainly glided for very long distances.

FLATOW: Yeah, have complete fossils been found of that one yet?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes, pretty well.

FLATOW: And it's really impressive. You said it had a 40-foot wingspan?

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah.

FLATOW: And the bones, as you show in the film, the bones were - it was something - looking like something you'd see in a land dinosaur.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah, it's very interesting how much you can tell from the structure of a bone. The pressure of the bone of a pterosaur, like the pressure in the bone of a bird, is to reduce weight because as we all know, weight takes a lot of energy in flying.

So the pterosaur bone is very, very thin and hollow, but it is supported in certain areas by struts, and where there are a lot of struts, you can be pretty sure that that's where there was the greatest pressure, so to resist the pressures, that's why the struts are there. So you can know that what - where the stresses were on any particular bone. And that has led us to be able to deduce that the animals actually catapulted themselves off the ground in the end using all four limbs.

FLATOW: Wow. I have to take a break. Sir David, stay with us, we're going to take a break. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, talking with Sir David Attenborough, writer and narrator of "Flying Monsters 3-D." We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Sir David Attenborough, writer and narrator of the new giant-screen film "Flying Monsters 3-D." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Sir David, when did you first get interested in nature and going around the world searching for it?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I grew up in the Midlands of England, and in an area where the rocks are of the same age, the Jurassic rocks, as the dinosaurs were found in and pterosaurs were found in. The rocks where I lived didn't contain dinosaur bones because they were laid down in rather deep sea, but they contained called ammonites and belemnites, which were a sort of shellfish, and one was a shellfish, the other was a squid-like creature.

And I collected those as a kid, and I flattered myself, I knew the names of most of the species that were around my hometown. And that led me to a curiosity about life in general and about animals in general but also particularly about animals of the past.

FLATOW: You have been just about everywhere in the world. Is there a place you haven't been to yet that you'd still like to go to?

ATTENBOROUGH: Oh, a heck of a lot, but I suppose if someone said where would you like to go, I would go to the Gobi Desert, I think. I haven't spent much - I've been on the fringes of it. I haven't spent much time there because there aren't many animals that live - they're few and far between.

And so to someone whose job it is to make programs about animals, that's not the obvious place to go because you get very little film for an awful lot of travel. But that's - so I wouldn't mind going there without having to make a film and with just a hammer, having a look at fossils, dinosaurs. There are wonderful dinosaurs in the Gobi.

FLATOW: Yeah, and yeah, we've seen them. A lot of the bird-type of dinosaurs.

ATTENBOROUGH: That's right, ornithomimus.

FLATOW: Yeah, and let's talk about birds, then. Why did birds survive and these giant pterosaurs die out?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, it's anybody's guess, and nobody can give you the definitive answer, but if you ask me to make what I hope is an informed guess, I would say it's because - not because of the way they fly but because of the way they behaved on the ground.

Birds with their wings, which are quite independent from their legs, can run around very fast indeed. So it doesn't matter whether they are pattering about on a seashore or a lake or (unintelligible) the bush or plucking seeds off of trees. They are very, very agile.

Pterosaurs had their skinny wings attached to their thighs, to begin with actually to their ankles but in later forms to their knees and to their thighs, and that hobbled them so that in a race to get to a shellfish, a bit of food on the edge of the sea or in a lake, they were slower.

There's not - I don't think there's any doubt about that, and so birds beat them to it every time. And that in the end meant that the birds won out.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Pat(ph) in Denver, hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PAT: Hi, such an honor to talk to both of you. Thanks for taking my call. Anyway, my question is: Would you say that productions like this are aimed at increasing the public's interest in science, or is it more targeted at just people that are kind of already interested in this stuff?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, how can people be interested in anything that they don't know existed? As soon as they come and are told about pterosaurs or see a reconstruction of a pterosaur in a museum, they are very interested, certainly they are. So all we're doing is putting them in front of you.

My view is if you start viewing it, and you're not interested, then I've made a bad film. I hope that just two minutes in, you ought to be interested. If you're not, it's my fault because they are fabulous animals.

FLATOW: All right, Pat, thanks for calling. Hope to go see this one, huh?

PAT: Absolutely, thank you.

FLATOW: Yeah, you're welcome. Your first big wildlife documentary was called "Zoo Quest," back in 1954, was it not?

ATTENBOROUGH: That's correct, yeah.

FLATOW: Was anyone else making natural history programs back then? Here in the United States we had Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" and mostly zoo sort of stories like that.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah, that's right. And they were great programs, but they specialized very much in the big game area of natural history. I was - the first films I made were about termites and small birds and snakes and other areas of the natural world other than those that you normally see in zoos. But certainly that "Wild Kingdom" was a great series, Marlin Perkins, I believe.

FLATOW: Right, he'd have his - I can't think of his name, his assistant, would be wrestling the alligator while he was talking about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ATTENBOROUGH: That's right. Well, it was very much - his programs are very much man battling with the beasts. The programs I was making were rather different with a rather different emphasis. They were simply what the beasts were like before man started to wrestle with them.

FLATOW: Now you have - as I say, you have gone all over the world, from Antarctica to Rwanda, Sierra Leone. In all the 50-plus years that you have traveled, do you see a lot of change since the first time you've seen these places?

ATTENBOROUGH: I've seen a lot of things, yeah.

FLATOW: I mean, has the world, has the environment changed? Can you see changes in these natural places?

ATTENBOROUGH: Oh, they've changed hugely, yeah. I mean, I'm going back to Borneo next week to look at some of the places that I first filmed in the late '50s, where I know what I shall find, and I shall find that whole areas of rainforest have been totally destroyed and replaced by oil palm plantations and that places that I once knew 50 years ago, little islands I knew 50 years ago, which were then the back of beyond, and in those ages, when you didn't have any telephones of any kind, let along emails and so on, when you went out there, you were out there and out of touch from the rest of your family and from anybody else.

You were in a canoe. You went upriver, and you might not come down for a couple of months, and nobody would know or have any way of knowing where you were. So it was a very different world.

FLATOW: In 2009, you worked on a BBC program about Darwin, "Tree of Life." How do you respond to readers and viewers who ask about creationism?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, what I say is that if look at the world's societies the world round, human societies, everyone, everyone has had a need to have stories about how human beings began. And if you went to Australia, they would say that the human beings, first human beings were coughed up by a giant python, which you see in - that's a rainbow in the sky.

If you went to Cambodia, they would say that the first human beings were coagulated out of a sea of milk by churning it, by putting it on the tail of a great snake. And if you went to people in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, they would say no, the first man was formed by mud when God blew into a model of a man by a - made out of mud. And then in order to get the first woman, he took a rib from the woman's side and turned it into a woman.

So they all have different versions. How are you to judge between these? Are you to assume that just because you are born in this particular society that is the right answer?

Well, there's another way of doing it other than listening to the stories that you are told at your parent's knee, and that is to go and look for the evidence. And it's all out there. And when you do, when you look at the rocks, and you look at fossils, and you can decipher them all and see it for yourself, the answer is all the same.

FLATOW: It comes from that evidence. And that's the one that I believe in.

That doesn't mean to say that you don't believe in God. It's just that the creation story is the one the evidence of which is in the rocks.

FLATOW: One last question, and I'll let you go. What's on your plate next?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, it's going back to some of the places I was in half-a-century ago and seeing how they've changed and how our understanding of them has changed. And the first one is going to be in Borneo.

FLATOW: Taking your film crew with you? Are you taking your film crew, or is this...

ATTENBOROUGH: Oh sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Do you ever talk about retiring at all?

ATTENBOROUGH: I would rather - if I can do something, I would rather do something than nothing.

FLATOW: Yeah, well did you have someone whose style that you emulated when you were young and growing up, as a presenter?

ATTENBOROUGH: Not really, you know. I mean, television was in its infancy 50 years ago, 60 years ago. And we didn't see - there wasn't anybody else who was actually going out there and making films about anything other than big game. So I didn't really have anybody to follow.

FLATOW: Did you know Jacob Bronowski at all?

ATTENBOROUGH: Certainly did.

FLATOW: Yeah. He was - I'd say you two are probably the old deans of science presenters, and I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

ATTENBOROUGH: You're very kind.

FLATOW: Sir David Attenborough is writer and narrator of the new giant-screen film "Flying Monsters 3-D." It's terrific. I recommend you go take a look at it. He's also a longtime producer, host of BBC documentaries, including "The Life" series.

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