The question. Let's say a pterosaur like Q. Northropi survived as an isolate and thrived as apex predator in New Zealand for millions of years. Without much evolutionary pressure its species remained biologically stable. Then the Maori arrived around 900 AD, and were able to, in something like 200 years to domesticate those large flying reptiles.

From Wikipedia: "In 2010, Mike Habib, a professor of biomechanics at Chatham University, and Mark Witton, a British paleontologist, after factoring wingspan, body weight, and aerodynamics, were led by computer modeling to conclude that Q. northropi was capable of flight up to 130 km/h (80 mph) for 7 to 10 days at altitudes of 4,600 m (15,000 ft). Habib further suggested a maximum flight range of 13,000–19,000 km (8,000–12,000 mi) for Q. northropi."

How would that work? Humans able to fly a fast and long range mount?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Inquirer.. remarkable scenario ! You want to know how flight would have influenced the Maori, when they could have developed it long ago ? Keep in mind ONE question is asked here, your current question is very broad.. we can't invent your story for you ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Dec 25, 2021 at 3:27
  • $\begingroup$ Similar scenario: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/171753/… $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Dec 25, 2021 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ Issues: A creature with that kind of range probably would not remained confined to a single island. A creature that evolved to have that kind of range probably relied on it to survive sustainably. And if somehow it survived and thrived without leaving the island, it would over millions of years lose the fairly extreme adaptations that allowed it to have such an enormous range. You need evolutionary pressure to weed out the random range-reducing mutations that will otherwise accumulate. $\endgroup$ Dec 26, 2021 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ How do you drag the domestication period beyond a handful of years? Jo Maori first meets and tames one critter, which takes not centuries but days or weeks. Jo and his buddies tame more until by chance or choice, they've tamed a breeding pair. What more is needed? For a brief, 90-odd minute explanation of how that might work, someone about 1970 made a movie called "Conquistor" … though sadly my search engine doesn't now want to acknowledge that. That Habib-Witton computation looks far-fetched, unless everything with that wingspan, weight, and aerodynamics shares that flight performance. $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2021 at 0:40

4 Answers 4


The problem is mass. Large pterodactyls like Q. Northropi evolved only at the expense of having to shed every gram of unnecessary weight possible. Their bones were full of air spaces that saved weight at the expense of load bearing capability. And their muscle mass was restricted to the minimum needed to get them airborne and up to altitude. After that like albatrosses they relied their ability to glide to cover long distances. As far as I can remember Q. Northropi weighed somewhere in the vicinity of about 200 kilos or so (we think). Say about about 450 pounds (probably less) in old money.

There's simply no way an animal weighing 200 kilos could carry an adult human of average weight, say 80 kilos any practical distance - even on land let alone in the air. (And have you seen the size of the average Maori front row forward!)

EDIT/frame challenge: Have you considered falconry either using Haast's eagles or a suitably carnivorous pterodactyl?

  • $\begingroup$ What if they were bred for the task? $\endgroup$ Dec 25, 2021 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ I believe there are upper limits on how massive flying creature can become. These include eternal factors like atmospheric oxygen levels and gravity (one varying over geopolitical periods the other not). And biological ones - chiefly the issue of how far evolution can push the bone strength to weight ratio and the amount of energy that can be extracted from muscles. Probably lots of others as well. Regardless animals can grow larger in marine environments than on land because the water supports their weight and land animals can grow larger than flying creatures for the same reason. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Dec 25, 2021 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ "There's simply no way an animal weighing 200 kilos could carry an adult human [of] 80 kilos [...] on land" What about horses, camels, etc.? (Quick search suggest mean horse weighs-in about 600 kg and camel around 700 kg.) $\endgroup$
    – D. Kovács
    Dec 26, 2021 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ Err... I think you answered your own question. Using your own figures the animals you named weight at least 3 times more than Q. Northropi did (and the figure I quoted for its weight was at the extreme upper end of the estimated maximum). That aside your still forgetting the difference in bone structure & the difference that makes to load bearing capacity (strength) AND finally and obviously the dactyl has to get airborne, horses and camels don't. Depending on their specific gait large/heavy terrestrial animals support their weight on at least one leg at all times. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Dec 27, 2021 at 3:36

The dragon riders would be children

Like other answerers have pointed out, a grown human is too heavy to be carried any significant distance, but a small enough child should be light enough.

Children have been used for all sorts of things that adults are too large to do. Probably the most applicable example is camel jockeys. According to the Wikipedia article, children as young as two years old have been trained as jockeys, all in the pursuit of the lowest possible weight. Camels run faster when unencumbered, and children can be bought relatively cheaply to replace those who grow up or fall off and break. Western examples of children in dangerous jobs include those crawling in narrow mines or under running machines in early textile factories. A somewhat nicer jobs is that of child singers.

If you include tasks that doesn't require small size or weight, the list of things children are used for gets much longer. Child soldiers are another horrible example.

You can teach very complex tasks to young children. Though not as good as teenagers or adults, the level of many child musicians, chess players, go players and circus artists is simply astounding.

As for the case in question: I see pterosaur-born, highly trained children being used to relay messages faster than any other messenger on Earth. I see them being used as unmatched watchers who keep track of vast areas, keeping the local authorities informed.

Edit for clarity: I think pterosaur domestication to a large extent would be an information technology. They could also be used for sport, like is done with the camels mentioned above.

In times of conflict, I see them as dangerous archers or sling operators as well as dropping darts and crude fire bombs to set buildings on fire. This will not defeat an army on its own, just complicate tactics for your opponent. They would stay high enough not to be threatened by archers on the ground, and would only have to watch out for other dragon riders (as I'd like to think early western observers would call them!). They could also land and have their pterosaur fight if the victim is alone and unarmed, or if there are many riders attacking together.

Early western explorers might not have been carried off by flying beasts, but they would likely have seen their ships set on fire. (This would also fit well with the idea of dragons breathing fire: You see something large fly high above, and suddenly the sail is ablaze!)

The dragon riders would also give the Maori unprecedented knowledge. They would not in themselves allow invasions of say Australian nations, but they would fly high above the world, gather news and make the best maps in history.

The careers of these children would be very short, and though they might be praised celebrities for a short time they'd have to find something else to do as they grow up. With careers that short I don't see this being a hereditary profession kept within certain families. The real significant profession might be that of those who train the riders, go around in search of new recruits and maintain a group of them.

  • $\begingroup$ "riders would be children" you may find mature jockeys able to do it (49 to 54 kg) $\endgroup$ Dec 26, 2021 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps this could lead to the selection of smaller adults too, creating an evolutionary pressure towards dwarfism. $\endgroup$
    – Drake P
    Dec 26, 2021 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ Couple of points. Children don't have the muscle mass (strength ) to make good/effective archers or slingers and archery from a moving target like a horse takes years to perfect as a skill. So the ability to squadrons of pterodactyls mounted by children to influence a battle (after the first shock of seeing them has worn off) would border on the inconsequential. The best you could hope to do is use them as scouts and/or fire bombers. (Assuming the pay load was light.) And dwarves (Tolkein style anyway) massed as much, if not more than the average adult human. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Dec 26, 2021 at 6:43
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi That may be, I'm not sure though. 50 kg is quite heavy compared to a 20 kg 7-8 year old. $\endgroup$
    – EdvinW
    Dec 26, 2021 at 8:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon You make some good points! I know 5 yearolds are not strong, but I would had imagined they could injure adults. Especially as they would shoot downwards and don't need to overcome any distances. However, I didn't imagine them being game changers in battles as soldiers, rather as effective scouts. And terrorists: if you can't protect the village from falling arrows, even shot by children, this is a significant disturbance. Also if you're 200 meters up you could throw things and have them gather dangerous velocity just by free fall. $\endgroup$
    – EdvinW
    Dec 26, 2021 at 8:40

A big Q. northropi may have the ability fly that far if it was unencumbered and could catch some good thermals. Slapping a human on its back would likely greatly decrease its range.

But, it would be a formidable way to discourage European real estate ambitions. :-)

1642: Able Tasman's expedition lost without a trace.

1769 (as reported by one of the few survivors): The flag was planted and our captain, James Cook, began to speak. "I hereby claim this land in the... what in Hades are those things?!? RUN! Run for your lives! AAAAAAAA!!!!”

Oh, and even though Q. northropi wouldn't feel too much evolutionary pressure, the other animals would. I'm imagining those cute little kiwi birds are now weighing in at about 8-10 kg and like to hunt in packs.

Edit: Even with little evolutionary pressure, 65 million years is a long time, so some changes could occur even before humans get into the selective breeding game.

At first, a the handful of these that survive the great extinction would likely be hungry. Some would try flying to their uttermost limits to find new lands, but even if any made it, the lack of Q. northropi outside of NZ means none survived to the modern era. The good part of this was less competition for the limited prey inside NZ while ecosystems recovered from the disaster. Super long distance flight isn't the advantage it once was.

But, being on top of the foodchain has drawbacks. Population of prey grows supporting more top predators. The number of predators grows fast enough to eat prey faster than it can replace itself. Starvation then cuts the predator population.

There is another source of food nearby. The oceans are also recovering. Grabbing a big fish like an eagle works, but more strength is needed to get back in the air after the occasional accidental water landing. More strength is needed to lift bigger fish. Range is sacrificed for stronger bones and muscles.

More pressure in this direction comes if our Q. northropi decide to go for larger creatures deeper in the water. Instead of being limited to what's withing claw range of the surface, imagine something that big hunting like a diving bird. That tiger shark cruising along 12 meters down won't have a lot of warning when our now triphibious dino diver decides the shark looks tasty.

Of course, plowing into the water at high speed and then moving underwater again requires stronger bones and muscles. More food is available, but weight goes up and range is further decreased. Strength goes up so that one adult human becomes an easy load and two becomes possible for larger specimens to handle.

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    $\begingroup$ "But, it would be a formidable way to discourage European real estate ambitions. :-)"..... On the contrary, the race would be on to deliver one to The Royal Society! $\endgroup$
    – DrMcCleod
    Dec 25, 2021 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ @DrMcCleod, I do agree that the Royal Society would desperately want one (assuming the could be convinced that the "men riding flying monsters" story was even partly true), but there's a difference in trying to steal one to study vs. sending colonists. $\endgroup$ Dec 25, 2021 at 11:46

Domesticating the pterosaur implies domesticating the moa.


moa and eagle

Before the arrival of human settlers, the moa's only predator was the massive Haast's eagle...

Polynesians arrived sometime before 1300, and all moa genera were soon driven to extinction by hunting and, to a lesser extent, by habitat reduction due to forest clearance. By 1445, all moa had become extinct, along with Haast's eagle, which had relied on them for food

In your world the pterosaur plays the role of Haast's eagle. Flying predators would have been eating moas and so to keep the flying predators the Maori would have had to refrain from eating all the moas. A giant domestic meat bird could have more consequences on world history than kids flying around on dragons. Kids could be good messengers and maybe rapid couriers. A meat animal and conservation of lands for it to feed in implies a whole different and farsighted relationship between the early Maori and their new lands.

Ultimately though I am not sure that domestic New Zealand species and land conservatorship would have made things go differently for the Maori post European contact. They would still be outgunned and disease would still ravage them. The ability to fly around on dragons would be noticed and greatly admired but it would be difficult to bring these big lizards back to Europe to show off. A question in my mind is whether the domestic pterodactyl and moa would survive contact. Polynesian dogs did not and dogs are pretty resilient.

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    $\begingroup$ "They would still be outgunned" Have you studied the New Zealand Wars? The Maori didn't lose because they were outgunned. They were quite proficient with the use of muskets in warfare, after one Maori chief equipped his army with muskets and started using them in an attempt at conquering all the other Maori tribes, starting a massive civil war called the Musket War. The British signed a treaty with them recognizing their sovereignty for a reason, even if they exploited the Maori's lack of understanding of modern diplomacy to weight it in their favor. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Dec 25, 2021 at 23:23

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