Tapejara wellnhoferi, a small azhdarchoid pterodactyloid from the Early Cretaceous Santana Formation of Brazil, provides critical information about the aerodynamic function of its spectacular head crest. The cranial crests in pterodactyloids were sexually dimorphic and are thought to have evolved in adult males in response to female mate choice. However, the location of cranial crests in front of the center of gravity would create instability in the yaw axis during flight and may seem like a handicap. Vertically aligned webbed feet probably suppressed the yawing rotations and instability from the crest. Here we show that the crest functioned as a front rudder to make agile turn and mediate flight control. A computer simulation model suggests that Tapejara had a large excess of muscle power available above the power required for continuous flapping flight. It could easily takeoff from a perch, ground, or water surface and land safely on the ground. It was an excellent glider with a gliding angle close to 4° and a cruising speed of 27 km/h. Tapejara could soar efficiently on the windward side of cliffs or circle on rising thermals over tropical waters for efficient long-distance flight. Various control surfaces in the wings of Tapejara analogous to the slat, aileron, elevator, fin, rudder, and horizontal stabilizer of an aircraft made pterodactyloids versatile flyers.
- Cranial crest
- Cretaceous pterodactyloids