What wing design is best-suited for gigantic flying vertebrates, and why?

The wing designs I'm considering are Bat Wings, Bird Wings, and Pterosaur Wings. I'm leaning towards Pterosaur simply because the largest flying animals ever were Pterosaurs, but assuming that evolutionary lineage was irrelevant and we were looking solely at biomechanics and biological aviation capabilities, which wing design is truly best for something larger than anything ever seen before?

The largest flying animal ever known to have existed was the Quetzequatalus, which was around the size of a giraffe and 550 pounds give or take. Was the wing design truly ideal for a flying animal of that size? Or would a different wing design have been more beneficial?

EDIT: I forgot to mention the type of flight I had in mind, sorry. The mere ability to lift itself off the ground is a good start, and at the least it needs to be able to glide. Endurance flight is a best-case scenario in my mind. It basically would only use flying as a means of a shortcut in travelling.The sheer supposed cumbersome size of this thing would cancel out pursuit and acrobatics of any kind.

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    $\begingroup$ What does this animal need to do? Endurance flight? Rapid turns? Aerial pursuit? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jun 3, 2020 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Not all biologist agree that Quetzequatalus could fly. Yes, it had wings, but the shape of the joints in its wings suggest they were more commonly used to walk on than to fly with. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 3, 2020 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ In general, it's not a good practice to award the Green Checkmark so quickly. Give your question a few days or a week to pick up some answers. That way you'll be able to choose from more answers. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 4, 2020 at 3:37

3 Answers 3


Let's Compare and Contrast

  • When comparing bone structures, Pterosaurs and Birds have lighter wings than bats because they only have one "finger" instead of a bunch of spread out fingers. Bat wings give more control over the shape of your wing which is good for maneuverability, but bad for weight to lift ratios.

  • Pterosaurs have a slightly better wing shape than most birds for being big because their wings have more of a distal tapper. By having more area closer to the body which tappers out to the wing tips, there is less leverage working against holding out their long wings straight. In contrast most bird wings are designed to more evenly distribute lift.

  • Birds also have the advantage of feathers which extend the available surface area of a wing while adding negligible mass making bird like wings in many ways ideal for larger animals. (Pterosaurs had feathered wings too, but it is uncertain if they had flight feathers.)

  • In a related question: Could my Wyverns exist? I went into a bunch of details about optimizing lift against square cube rule disadvantages, but what it really comes down to is that the bigger you are the more you need to pancake or hallow out your mass to be able to fly; so, while wings shape is important, it is not necessarily as important as answering how you can turn the most mass into wing surface. To this end bat wings may be the best because they unify their arms, legs, and tail into one big continuous flight surface.

So your Best wing shape may actually be to take the best of three worlds. Use the distal taper of the Pterosaurs, the feathers of birds, and the continuous flight surface of a a bat which together will give you something similar to this:

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Legitimate question: Could this association really work? I'm no expert on the membrane part of bat and pterosaur wings, so the concept of feathers linked to the flexible extremities of the membrane seems a little weird to me, due to how thin they are (I assume pterosaurs had thicker membranes due to the special muscle filaments in them to change it's shape and flexibility, but still sounds like it'd be too thin). $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2020 at 0:21
  • $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex Fossils show that pterosaurs did have feathers, what is debatable is if those feathers helped them fly, or if they were just for warmth more like fur. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 4, 2020 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ I did read about it, the picnofibers and the new species which seemed to have more developed plumage, but I didn't know if they could work on a flexible membrane, as it sounds counterintuitive (but it's counterintuitive that an animal as big as a giraffe could fly so it's not like pterosaurs haven't showed us some crazy things before). $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2020 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex Bird feathers and mammal fur are on flexible membranes too. With birds, the flight feathers spread out and contract as the skin between feathers expands and contracts, but because they overlap, thier broadness helps keep them in alignment and ready to fly with. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jun 4, 2020 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ I see... It's a very interesting concept to mix both, I honestly would've never thought of it, even as some species seem to show that it could've happened. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2020 at 13:39


What does this animal need to be able to do? That's the guiding question. There's no one best style for a wing. Some creatures are built for speed, some for distance, and some barely fly at all.

The albatross flies over truly massive stretches of ocean. Here's its wing design.


I don't know if you've ever seen a chicken flying but it's less impressive. That's because chickens and other game birds are built for a different type of flight:

[Game birds] can fly only short distances. This is because, despite their powerful muscles, they have little endurance. Game birds use their big flight muscles to take off in a near-vertical, rapid burst and fly for a short distance — called a burst flight — allowing them to escape predators.

You could design your massive flyer in whichever way the situation requires. Gliding, hunting, soaring, escaping, and foraging all lend themselves to different wing designs. Want a species that can fly across the ocean? It would be a real challenge to make a long-distance flyer weigh so much, but with a large enough wingspan you could make it plausible. On the other extreme, you could make it more like a bird version of a flying squirrel, which can barely glide and can't sustain flight.


Yes and no.

Being a giant predatorial pterosaur that was apparently able to travel long distances, quetzalcoatlus, as well as other azdarchids, is considered a very successful pterosaur species, with their "reign" over the skies ending with the KT extinction event. With this information, we can clearly see that Quetzalcoatlus had the best wings for a creature its size...which predominantly relied on soaring and very powerful but spread apart flaps of the wings. Their wings were capable of sustaining them during flight, allowed for long distance travel and permitted their lifestyle.

So did the Quetzalcoatlus have the best wing design for a large creature with a lifestyle like quetzalcoatlus'? Yes. Was it the best wing configuration among all possible kinds and superior to any other wing in every way? No. Quetzalcoatlus showed is that pterosaur wings allowed for large flying creatures to exist, but I doubt that quetzalcoatlus would ever be able to catch a flying bat (wild speculation but, yes), because bat wings, with their large amount of articulation, allows their owners to do incredible acrobatic and evasive moves, as well as achieve decently high speeds in certain species, with the Brazilian free-tailed bat being the fastest flying vertebrate regarding powered flight, clocking at 160 km/h.

So that means bat wings are superior? No. Bat wings may allow for decent speed and great maneuverability, as well as high dodging capabilities and some level of hovering in certain nectar-feeding species. But in many cases you'll hear a bat flying by the sound of its flapping motion, something that'll hardly happen with an owl. Owls evolved special feathers that, combined with their slow flapping flying style, makes their flight almost soundless, so by the time you detect it, it'll be to late. Falcons on the other hand went for the "opposite" strategy, you'll hear them coming, but with their body an wings adapted to achieve high speeds (peregrine falcon still holds the record for fastest flying animal with its 320 km/h dives), it'll usually be upon you before you have time to do anything.

So summing up: did quetzalcoatlus have the best wing for a quetzalcoatlus? Yes. Was it the best wing ever? No, it wasn't.

As far as it's understood, what allowed pretosaurs to reach the sizes azdarchids did wasn't just the wings, it was about the pterosaurs themselves, their extreme adaptations which resulted in animals the size of a giraffe that weighted less than a black bear and were assumed to take to the skies like a vampire bat.

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    $\begingroup$ Really? The bats where I live are pretty silent. But they're relatively small too, so there's that. Can definitely attest to their maneuverability. I've seen them do things that no bird could pull off, except maybe a hummingbird. $\endgroup$
    – Redbud201
    Jun 4, 2020 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Redbud201well owls are just as impressive, because you won't hear them either. I don't think even humming birds can pull out quite the same maneuvers bats can do, even with their speed. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2020 at 3:06
  • $\begingroup$ The largest pterosaurs known were at around 200-250 kg, so there's that. $\endgroup$ Jun 7, 2020 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Mephistopheles yup, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, the largest (and in my opinion one of the most incredible) flying animal known to man. $\endgroup$ Jun 7, 2020 at 22:15

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