Pterosaurs, enigmatic extinct Mesozoic reptiles, were the first vertebrates to achieve true flapping flight. Various lines of evidence provide strong support for highly efficient wing design, control, and flight capabilities. However, little is known of the pulmonary system that powered flight in pterosaurs. We investigated the structure and function of the pterosaurian breathing apparatus through a broad scale comparative study of respiratory structure and function in living and extinct archosaurs, using computer-assisted tomographic (CT) scanning of pterosaur and bird skeletal remains, cineradiographic (X-ray film) studies of the skeletal breathing pump in extant birds and alligators, and study of skeletal structure in historic fossil specimens. In this report we present various lines of skeletal evidence that indicate that pterosaurs had a highly effective flow-through respiratory system, capable of sustaining powered flight, predating the appearance of an analogous breathing system in birds by approximately seventy million years. Convergent evolution of gigantism in several Cretaceous pterosaur lineages was made possible through body density reduction by expansion of the pulmonary air sac system throughout the trunk and the distal limb girdle skeleton, highlighting the importance of respiratory adaptations in pterosaur evolution, and the dramatic effect of the release of physical constraints on morphological diversification and evolutionary radiation.