Pterosaurs

Pterosaurs are commonly referred to as “flying dinosaurs” as they were around during this period and many have confused some of these species with dinosaurs. Pterosaurs are said to have been close cousins of the dinosaurs but they are on a completely separate branch of the family tree for reptiles.

The name pterosaur, as a lot of the species of this era were named, comes from the Greek language of “pteron” meaning wing, and “sauros” meaning lizard.

Pterosaurs were on earth from 228 to 66 million years ago which means they existed from the Jurassic period right through to the Cretaceous period before becoming extinct. During this time as dinosaurs ruled the earth, the pterosaurs ruled the skies.

pterosaurs aerodactylus

Aerodactylus Image source and artist 

Over that 150 million year period over 130 named species existed (and possibly more lay undiscovered) and they ranked in size from the smallest being the size of a small bird in today’s comparison, and the largest had a wingspan of nearly 12 meters (40 feet).

They are divided into two groups, the first is a group called rhamphorhynchoidea’s and these were the first pterosaurs that appeared on earth, and the other group is pterodactyloids, who were extinct at the end of the cretaceous period.

The two groups of pterosaurs

Rhamphorhynchoidea

The rhamphorhynchoidea’s first appeared on earth around 200 million years ago in the late Triassic period. Unlike their descendants the rhamphorhynchoid’s mostly had long tails and teeth, and most of them did not have bony crests, only crests made from soft tissue.

Dimorphodon

Dimorphodon Flight Image source 

Pterodactyloidea

Pterodactyloidea’s first appeared during the middle of the Jurassic period and are different to their predecessors with their short tails and long hand bones. They also had giant and very distinguishable, and well developed crests on their skulls.

Pterodactylus antiquus

Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Birds of today did not descend from pterosaurs as some people may think. Many were not feathered, like the modern flying Aves (warm blooded vertebrates), and instead had more reptile features with most being cold blooded. There have been some species that have been found with fossilised hair fragments which has made scientists believe they needed the hair to keep themselves warm. So even now we are learning all the time which is why this subject is fascinating.    

Probably the most famous pterosaur was the pterodactyl, and thanks probably due to the media and Hollywood’s portrayal of this flying reptile. But interestingly the pterodactyl was not actually a single species, it is a common word that is associated with two pterosaurs, the Pteranodon and the Pterodactylus. 

Pterosaurs had a variety of different diets, some species were predominantly fish eaters, some may have hunted land animals, some may have hunted each other, while others stuck to a diet of fruit.

Quick Pterosaurs Facts

NamePterosaur means “wing lizard” in Greek
First Found:Over 130 different species discovered
When it lived:228 to 66 million years ago
Died out:Extinct when the Cretaceous ‘Paleogene’ event occurred
Famous:The most famous pterosaur is the Pterodactyl, which was not a single species.
How big?11 to 12 meters (33 to 36 feet) wide.

Characteristics of pterosaurs

Compared to modern day vertebrae flying groups such as bats and birds, the pterosaurs had large skulls and long jaws filled with sharp teeth. As time went on and the species evolved their jaws became longer.
A distinguishing feature of the pterosaur was their crests that were located on their heads. They came in many ways, some crests were thick with large bones, some were thin, and small with no underlying bone and were fleshy.

Their most distinguishing features, and the most obvious was their wings. These were formed by bones, membranes of skin, and other tissues. The wings were often attached to the fourth finger on their claws. As time went on many species evolved and became efficient for flying. They probably got slower, but meant they were more effective for flying longer distances.

Cast of Thalassodromeus sethi

Tim Evanson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sizes of pterosaurs

As mentioned above the sizes ranged hugely. The smallest pterosaur discovered so far is the Nemicolopterus crypticus and was discovered in China, and had a wingspan of only 10 inches (25 cm).

One of the largest pterosaurs species discovered was called the Quetzalcoatlus who had a wingspan estimated to be 11 to 12 meters (33 to 36 feet) wide.

Its thought this was the biggest known flying animal that was ever on the planet. It has been referred to as the “winged monster” due to its enormous size.

Giants over time. © Mark Witton “Record claims of pterosaur wingspans and equivalent standing heights compared to ( a ) a 3 m span Andean condor ( Vultur gryphus ) and ( b ) a 3 m span wandering albatross ( Diomedea exulans ). ( c ) Marsh’s (1876 a ) 7.6 m span Pteranodon longiceps . ( d ) Stoyanow’s (16 November 1936, Time Magazine ) apocryphal 10 m span Jurassic pterosaur. ( e ) Harksen’s (1966 ) 9.1 m span Pteranodon sternbergi . ( f ) Lawson’s (1975) 11 m span Quetzalcoatlus northropi . ( g ) The Buffetaut et al. (2002) 12 m span Hatzegopteryx thambema . ( h ) The erroneously reported BA Festival of Science 20 m span pterosaur. Humans used for scale are 1.75 m tall.” Link to resource.

What did pterosaurs eat?

As mentioned above some pterosaurs may have fed on fruit but the majority were carnivores and fed on baby dinosaurs, dinosaur eggs, insects and other animals. There were also pterosaurs that lived near the water and fish was the main content of their diet.

How did pterosaurs fly?

When pterosaurs were first discovered scientists thought that they lived in the sea, almost like penguins do now. But as time went on and experts examined further and then thought that these flying reptiles jumped from high ground and were only able to glide through the air.

It’s now universally thought that they were active fliers and able to fly through the air similar to birds.

Rhamphorhynchus munsteri

Museum for Natural Sciences of Belgium, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Did pterosaurs lay eggs?

Yes pterosaurs did probably lay eggs, scientists think that as they had to be light to be able to fly a female pterosaur would have had to lay small eggs and act in a similar way birds do now.

When the baby pterosaurs first hatched they probably could not have flown straight away so as a parent it was their job to feed and protect their young until the pterosaurs were strong enough to flee the nest.

Pterodactyl

Pterodactyl was not actually classed as a dinosaur but as a pterosaur (flying reptile). While dinosaurs ruled the land, pterosaurs ruled the skies for millions of years. Interestingly pterodactyl is the common word many associate with two pterosaurs, Pteranodon and Pterodactylus.

IMPORTANT!

They were not actually closely related to each other and pterodactyls are the name referred to these mainly by journalists and fiction. Pterodactyl’s could not be left out from this website though as it is probably the most famous flying reptile of that period.

Barbaridactylus

Barbaridactylus image source and artist

About pterodactyl (Pterodactylus)

The name “Pterodactylus” originates from the Greek language meaning “wing” (ptero) and “finger” (dactyl) and was given the name by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a French genius who wrote and studied a variety of historical topics.

Pterodactylus lived during the late Jurassic period between 150.8 to 148.5 million years ago.

There have been over 30 fossil specimens to date with quite a few of them having been well preserved.

Quick Pterodactyl Facts

NamePterodactyl or ‘Wing Finger’
First Found:1784
When it lived:Jurassic Period 150-148 million years ago
Wing Span: Up to 1 meter
LengthUp to 43ft / 13 meters
Diet:Mainly fish

Pterodactyl (Pterodactylus) key features

As far as we know pterodactylus had a reptile appearance that was similar to the skin of bats, and did not have hair that we associate birds with in the modern era. Surprisingly birds did not descend from pterosaurs as some may have thought.

Pterodactyls had long and thin skulls. They had approximately 90 teeth which were large at the front of the jaw and got smaller the further back the jaw went. This was a distinguishing feature compared to other similar species. The pterodactyl used these teeth to mainly prey on fish that was their main source of food. Fossilised fish bones had been found within fossilised jaws which helped confirm these hypothesises.

Pterodactyls had a wingspan of approximately 1 meter (3 feet 5 inches) which were formed by a membrane of skin and muscle and the membrane was attached to the pterodactyls fourth finger. The pterodactyls claws had four fingers with the first three being slender. It was said early on in their discovery by scientists they used their wings as flippers. This is now not thought to be the case. Their wings were well adapted for flight.

What did the pterodactyl eat?

Pterodactyls were carnivores and ate mainly fish and other small animals. It’s thought they used similar techniques of modern day pelicans who used their long snout to snatch a fish out of the waters. It’s thought pterodactyl’s dived into waters up to the length of its shoulders to pick up a fish with its sharp teeth before jerking its head upwards and veering skywards.

How big was the pterodactyl?

The pterodactyl’s wingspan was from 50cm to over 1 meter (3.3 feet) and was a relatively small pterosaur in comparison to some other species.

Who discovered pterodactyl?

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a French historian who studied a fossil that was unearthed in Bavaria, Germany. The actual date of the specimen fossil is unknown but is thought to have been between 1767 and 1784. Since then some well preserved fossils have been discovered because the wet, muddy conditions of Jurassic lagoons they were once submersed in.

Key facts & Summary of pterodactyl (Pterodactylus)

  • Pterodactyl’s were not actually dinosaurs, they were a distant cousin.
  • Pterodactyl’s were a species that came under the broader family of Pterodactylus.
  • The first pterodactyl specimen was discovered in 1784 by Cosimo Alessandro Collini, who was an Italian scientist.
  • Most of the fossils of the pterodactyl have been found in Bavaria, Germany
  • The majority of pterodactyl’s in comparison to today, were the size of eagles or hawks.
  • Pterodactyl’s wingspan was up to 1m (3.3 feet)
  • Pterodactyl’s lived about 150.8 to 148.5 million years ago in the late Jurassic period
  • Pterodactyl was not actually a dinosaur. Dinosaurs  
  • The pterodactyl was thought to mainly feed off fish, although scientists have stated they also fed off small animals. 

Pteranodon

Pteranodon was one of the two species of pterosaurs that identified with the pterodactyl. The Pteranodon lived during the late cretaceous period 88 to 85 million years ago.

There have been more fossils of pteranodon found than any other pterosaur, and at time of writing that number is around 1200.

Pteranodon

Pteranodon Image source and artist

About Pteranodon

The name derives from the Greek word for “wing” (pteron) and “toothless” (anodon) and was given the name by a professor of palaeontology at Yale called Othniel Charles Marish in 1871, a year after the first Pteranodon was found.
Pteranodon was the first pterosaur where fossils were discovered outside of Europe and was discovered in Western Kansas USA in 1870. They have been found in countries including the United Kingdom, France, and East Asia

Pteranodon key features

The Pteranodon male was one of the largest pterosaurs there was. The male Pteranodon had an average wingspan of 5.6m (18 feet) but some were over 7 meters (23 feet). With so many specimens available various studies have been conducted by scientists to determine the weight of the Pteranodon. Some estimates have the average weight being as low as 20 kilograms (44Ib) while others stated estimates as high as 93 kilograms (205Ib).

Like a lot of other pterosaurs, the Pteranodon probably took flight from a standing position and used their forearms to push themselves into the air. Researchers even thought that their brains appeared to evolve for the flight as their lobes grew over time and their job was to process data from the wing membrane.

Quick Pteranodon Facts

NamePteranodon ‘wing-toothless’
First Found:1870
When it lived:Lived 88 to 85 million years ago
Characteristic:They had no teeth and a long beak
WingspanAverage wingspan was 5.6 meters (18 feet
Diet: Fish, crabs, squids, and dead animals

One of the main features of the Pteranodon was its skull crest. It has been debated for years what the role of these crests was for, and some scientists believed it was to counterbalance the jaws, or for helping to steer whilst in flight.

Modern day technology has helped with the hypothesis as scientists have used wind tunnels to replicate how the crest works in flight. It is thought that the crest was larger in males and smaller in females, and other experts have concluded that its primary function was for display, and the males used their crests to showcase themselves for the female Pteranodon.

Another characteristic of the Pteranodon was the narrow neutral spines on its vertebrae and they had relatively short tails compared to other Pterosaurs. As its name states, the Pteranodon lacked teeth, and any toothless jaw fossils of pterosaurs were associated with the Pteranodon for this reason.

Where it lacked teeth the Pteranodon made up for with its imposing skull. There was one species that had a head of 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in length.

Pteranodon model in Vienna

régine debatty, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What did the Pteranodon eat?

The Pteranodon would have used its long toothless beak to scoop up its food which was the majority of time fish, but it also ate squid, crabs, and it may have eaten dead animals as well. Fossilised fish bones have been found in the stomach of one known Pteranodon fossil.

How big was the Pteranodon?

Some Pteranodon had a wingspan of over 6 meters (19 feet) but average size was 5.6 meters (18 feet).

One of the largest specimens known had a wingspan of 7.25 meters (23.8 feet).

Who discovered Pteranodon?

Othniel Charles Marish a professor of palaeontology at Yale found fossils of the, not yet named specimen of pterosaurs, in 1870 in Western Kansas located in the United States. After a few years of study he named this specimen “Pteranodon”.

How big was Pteranodon

Matt Martyniuk, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Key facts & summary of Pteranodon

  • Pteranodon was not a dinosaur but a pterosaur, or a “flying dinosaur” as the media like to label them.
  • The first Pteranodon was discovered in 1870 by Othniel Charles Marish
  • Pteranodon was given its name by Othniel Charles Marish in 1871 and means “Wing toothless”
  • Pteranodon lived during the late cretaceous period 88 to 85 million years ago
  • The average wing span they grew to was 5.6 meters (18 feet) but the largest found had a wingspan of 7.25 meters (23.8 feet).
  • They ate fish, crabs, squids, and dead animals and they had no teeth and a long beak.

Quetzalcoatlus

One of the biggest flying animals of all time was the Quetzalcoatlus, which was a pterosaur of the late cretaceous period. Its wingspan was nearly the length of a bus, and it was as tall as a giraffe.

The Quetzalcoatlus had a long sharp beak and came from a family of toothless pterosaurs called Azhdarchidae. It has been referred to as the “winged monster” due to its enormous size.

Quetzalcoatlus

How big was Quetzalcoatlus? Image source

About Quetzalcoatlus

This Pterosaur lived between 68 and 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. It was first discovered in Texas, United States of America by a geology graduate student called Douglas Lawson in 1971.

Quetzalcoatlus key features

All fossils of the Quetzalcoatlus have been found in land and so conclusions have been made by some experts that they preyed on carcasses of dinosaurs. They have been found approximately 250 miles (400km) inland which is the reason for scientists to come up with this conclusion.

Some have said the Quetzalcoatlus fed off fish in rivers or lakes but there are no indications that these existed during the Cretaceous period and the energy it expelled hunting for fish was said to be huge, given its size.

Quick Quetzalcoatlus Facts

NameQuetzalcoatlus or ‘winged monster’
First Found:Douglas Lawson in 1971
When it lived: 68 – 66 Million years ago
Size:Largest ever flying animal on earth
Wingspan11 – 12 meters (33 to 36 feet).
Diet:Carnivore, meat

How big was the Quetzalcoatlus?

It’s estimated the Quetzalcoatlus’s wingspan was between 11 to 12 meters (33 to 36 feet). As mentioned previously it has been referred to as the “winged monster” due to its enormous size.

The first discovery by Douglas Lawson remains one of the largest found to date and Lawson actually found more in the coming 2 years from a site 40km (25 miles) away from the first.

The explosive power needed for the Quetzalcoatlus to launch itself would have been immense. They would have launched in a single leap and would have only needed a few flaps of their enormous wings to keep them in the air. Some substantial research has gone into the estimations of flight speeds, altitude, and distance the Quetzalcoatlus could fly.

How big was Quetzalcoatlus

Matt Martyniuk (Dinoguy2), Mark Witton and Darren Naish, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One such study concluded the Quetzalcoatlus was capable of flying up to 80 mph (130 km/h) at heights of 4,600 meters (15,000 feet), and for 7 to 10 days meaning the distance it could cover was potentially 13,000 to 19,000 km (8,000 to 12,000 miles). That is the equivalent distance of flying from London to New York and back again, and even back to New York.

The weight of the Quetzalcoatlus has been estimated to be between 70kg (150Ib) to 250kg (550Ib)

Key facts & Summary of Quetzalcoatlus

  • The very first Quetzalcoatlus was discovered in Texas, United states in 1971 by Douglas Lawson
  • The Quetzalcoatlus was the largest flying animal to have ever roamed the earth
  • The Quetzalcoatlus wingspan was said to be 11 – 12 meters (33 to 36 feet

 

  • Quetzalcoatlus lived between 68 and 66 million years ago during the Cretaceous period
  • Quetzalcoatlus had a long sharp beak and came from a family of toothless pterosaurs called Azhdarchidae
  • The Quetzalcoatlus fed of dinosaur carcasses mainly

Other Pterosaurs

Hatzegopteryx

Fossils of the Hatzegopteryx have been found in Transylvania (Romania) and its thought it ruled the skies during the late Cretaceous Period 66 million years ago.

It was thought the Hatzegopteryx was once bigger than the Quetzalcoatlus but after years of debate and research, scientists believe that this pterosaurs wingspan was around 10 to 12 meters (33 to 39 feet), so very similar to the Quetzalcoatlus.

One of the outstanding features of the Hatzegopteryx is the size of its skull. Initial estimations put the size at 3 meters (9.8 feet) but this was reduced to 1.6 meters in recent years. Hatzegopteryx is said to have a shorter neck than its relative Quetzalcoatlus.

Hatzegopteryx

Hatzegopteryx Image source and artist

Arambourgiania

Another large pterosaur that flew during the late Cretaceous period in Jordan and possibly the United States. The first fossilised bones were discovered in the early 1940’s in Jordan.

In a large study conducted in the late 1990’s they concluded that the wingspan of the Arambourgiania was 12 to 13 meters (39 to 43 feet) so compared to the Quetzalcoatlus this would have made the Arambourgiania the largest pterosaur ever.

However estimates that have since been completed have concluded the Arambourgiania to have a wingspan of 7 meters which of course is far less meaning the Quetzalcoatlus was still estimated as the largest pterosaur.

Arambourgiania

Arambourgiania image source and artist

Ornithocheirus

Ornithocheirus was a pterosaur whose fossils have been discovered in numerous countries including England, America, and Brazil and lived on earth between 136.4 million and 93.5 million years ago.

This was another potentially large wingspan but it was likely to be 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6.1 meters).

ornithocheirus

Ornithocheirus Image source and artist

Hesperornis

Hesperornis was a huge bird that measured 6.5 feet (2 metres) in length. They had virtually no wings and hunted in the waters of the North American Inland Sea, swimming with powerful hind legs. Its feet were probably lobed rather than being webbed as in today’s grebes.

Like other Mesozoic birds such as Ichthyornis, Hesperornis had teeth in its beak which were used to hold prey such as fish.

Hesperornis

Nobu Tamura (http://spinops.blogspot.com), CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Were Hesperornis ovoviviparous?

Some scientist believe that Hesperornis were ovoviviparous instead of incubating their eggs. In any case, young Hesperornis grew fairly quickly and continuously to adulthood, as is the case in modern birds, but not Enantiornithes.

It was a tough life being a Hesperornis as they were preyed upon by many large marine carnivores. A Tylosaurus specimen found contained the bones of a Hesperornis in its stomach.

The first Hesperornis specimen was discovered in 1871 by Othniel Charles Marsh. Marsh was undertaking his second western expedition, accompanied by ten students.

FURTHER READING & STUDY

Last Updated on 16/07/2021 by admin