Every Friday afternoon after class — during what should be the start of the weekend — 17-year-old David Olin takes a bus and a train from his high school to get to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
There, he meets with USC’s Mike Habib to pore over 85 million-year-old Pteranodon fossils, using his smartphone and some cutting-edge software to tease out mysteries about how these giant flying reptiles — with wingspans up to six meters wide and bodies up to 40 kilograms — took to the sky.
The two are creating a three-dimensional computer model of a Pteranodon wing to get a more precise understanding of its flight dynamics. Older models relied on broad assumptions about the shape of their wings and carry with them a fairly large margin of error.
Olin, 17, is a junior at Wildwood High School on Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles. The school has an internship program, and through it, Olin’s biology teacher connected him with Habib.
When they first met, Olin shocked Habib by spotting the growth plates on the left ankle of the skeleton of Thomas the T. rex, one of the Natural History Museum’s Tyrannosaur fossils in the Hall of Dinosaurs. (Thomas, a 7,000-pound 17-year-old, was in the middle of a growth spurt when he died.)
I have never been so impressed on day one with a high school student.
“I have never been so impressed on day one with a high school student,” Habib said. “‘How do you even know what a growth plate is, aside from the fact that you still have them?’”
Habib, meanwhile, is a rising star in the dinosaur world — especially in the rarefied science of dinosaur and pterosaur flight. He was one of the Brilliant 10 researchers tapped by Popular Science in 2014, his research with Justin Hall changed the way we understand Microraptor’s four-winged flight in 2012, and right now, Habib is one of the first experts cited in Wikipedia’s Pteranodon article. He’s an anatomist, a physicist and a paleontologist all rolled into one.
Drag and lift
Using 3-D scanning technology and AutoCAD software, Habib and Olin have already discovered that the Pteranodon wrist and elbow were more complicated in terms of overall geometry than originally suspected, adding drag, but possibly also lift. Taken together, these findings suggest that they were probably good at slow-speed flight.
“The drag ratio is important, but it’s not the whole story,” Habib said.
In the flying world, faster isn’t always better. Slow-speed flight allows an organism to land on small targets (such as rocky outcroppings on cliff faces) and to carry more mass — that is, to get bigger.
It also explains how Pteranodon individuals were able to take off from water, despite their enormous size. Launching from the ground is a far easier process — you’ve got a stable platform from which to push off. With water, a lot of the energy goes into waves at the surface, so it takes extra strength to push off of the surface, and probably several hops to make it work.
Not all flying creatures have the capacity to take off from water, but for those living near lakes or oceans — like Pteranodon — it’s a matter of life or death. Remains of fish have been found in the jaws and stomach area of Pteranodon fossils, suggesting a diet derived from the sea.
If Pteranodons were capable of water launching, it opens up a broad range of hunting techniques that they might have used, including plunge diving like a pelican. It also gives physicists like Habib the ability to start calculating just how big Pteranodons could possibly have gotten, using the limits of their ability to water-launch to set the ceiling.
The technology to create these 3-D models has existed for a couple of years now, but part of the reason this project has never been done before is that it’s incredibly time-consuming.
“It’s not something you can do without a pretty significant amount of work,” Olin said.
At the Natural History Museum, Olin takes about 30 to 40 photos of each bone using his phone and then runs them through an app called 123D Catch that stitches them together into a 3-D image.
But it’s not as simple as just creating a 3-D model of the actual bone. Pteranodon bones were highly pneumatized — that is, mostly hollow — making them incredibly fragile. Most fossils that have been discovered are crushed flat.
So from there, Olin exports the now-3-D image of the crushed bone into the computer at his home, where he’s able to manipulate it in an AutoCAD program, puffing it back out to its original shape, or as close as he can get to it. The process is both science and art.
“I’m getting faster,” he said. “It used to take several days — now I can do a single bone in an hour or two.”
The time commitment is significant for a high school student who’s already facing the pressures of class, preparing for college and seeing friends. Typically, he devotes two to three hours on it per day — from the time he gets home from school to dinner.
“Sometimes my friend say, ‘Stop talking about Pteranodons,’” Olin said. “But they’re all working on some kind of science project, so they understand.”
The world of dinosaurs
Olin started the project more interested in flight than dinosaurs, with plans to pursue aerospace engineering in college. Even as a child, he wasn’t interested in dinosaurs in general — just the pterosaurs.
“I was fascinated by how huge they were. How did something that size actually fly in the air?” he said.
Now he’s deeper into the world of dinosaurs than he ever expected. He’s gone through every pterosaur fossil at the Natural History Museum with Habib and has plans to present the findings and — more importantly, the methodology — of their work at the upcoming Flugsaurier conference in England and the world-renowned Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Dallas prior to publication.
After that? Olin hedges when asked about what he plans to study in college — aerodynamics, biomimetic design, dinosaurs … who knows? But he and Habib do plan to continue working together.
“We’ve got Skype. We’ve got Google Docs,” Habib said. And the sky’s the limit.