Old Earth Ministries Online Dinosaur Curriculum

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Lesson 71 - Pterosaurs

Pterosaurs (from the Greek meaning "winged lizard") were flying reptiles of the clade or order Pterosauria. They existed from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous Period (220 to 65.5 million years ago). Pterosaurs are the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight. Their wings were formed by a membrane of skin, muscle, and other tissues stretching from the legs to a dramatically lengthened fourth finger. Early species had long, fully toothed jaws and long tails, while later forms had a highly reduced tail, and some lacked teeth. Many sported furry coats made up of hair-like filaments known as pycnofibres, which covered their bodies and parts of their wings. Pterosaurs spanned a wide range of adult sizes, from the very small Nemicolopterus to the largest known flying creatures of all time, including Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx.

 Pterosaur: Flying High


Quick Facts


Wingspan: up to 40 feet

Date Range:   220 - 65 Ma, Late Triassic thru Late Cretaceous Period



Replica Geosternbergia sternbergi skeletons, male (right) and female (left)  (Picture Source)

Pterosaurs are sometimes referred to in the popular media as dinosaurs, but this is incorrect. The term "dinosaur" is properly restricted to a certain group of reptiles with a unique upright stance (superorder Dinosauria, which includes birds), and therefore excludes the pterosaurs.

Pterosaurs are also incorrectly referred to as "pterodactyls", particularly by journalists. This usage is discouraged. "Pterodactyl" refers specifically to members of the genus Pterodactylus, and more broadly to members of the suborder Pterodactyloidea.


The anatomy of pterosaurs was highly modified from their reptilian ancestors for the demands of flight. Pterosaur bones were hollow and air filled, like the bones of birds. They had a keeled breastbone that was developed for the attachment of flight muscles and an enlarged brain that shows specialized features associated with flight. In some later pterosaurs, the backbone over the shoulders fused into a structure known as a notarium, which served to stiffen the torso during flight, and provide a stable support for the scapula (shoulder blade).


Pterosaur wings were formed by membranes of skin and other tissues. The primary
Pterosaur wing
Reconstructed wing planform of Quetzalcoatlus northropi compared to the Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans and the Andean Condor Vultur gryphus (not to scale)   (Picture Source
 membranes attached to the extremely long fourth finger of each arm and extended along the sides of the body to the legs.

While historically thought of as simple, leathery structures composed of skin, research has since shown that the wing membranes of pterosaurs were actually highly complex and dynamic structures suited to an active style of flight. First, the outer wings (from the tip to the elbow) were strengthened by closely spaced fibers called actinofibrils. The actinofibrils themselves consisted of three distinct layers in the wing, forming a crisscross pattern when superimposed on one another. The actual function of the actinofibrils is unknown, as is the exact material from which they were made. Depending on their exact composition (keratin, muscle, elastic structures, etc.), they may have been stiffening or strengthening agents in the outer part of the wing. The wing membranes also contained a thin layer of muscle, fibrous tissue, and a unique, complex circulatory system of looping blood vessels.

As evidenced by hollow cavities in the wing bones of larger species and soft tissue preserved in at least one specimen, some pterosaurs extended their system of respiratory air sacs into the wing membrane itself.

Skull, teeth and crests

Most pterosaur skulls had elongated, beak-like jaws. Some advanced forms were toothless (such as the pteranodonts and azhdarchids), though most sported a full complement of needle-like teeth. In some cases, actual keratinous beak tissue has been preserved, though in toothed forms, the beak is small and restricted to the jaw tips and does not involve the teeth.

Pterosaurs are well known for their often elaborate crests. The first and perhaps best

Pterosaur crest

Reconstruction of crests three crested tapejarids. From top to bottom: Tapejara wellnhoferi, "Tapejara" navigans, Tupandactylus imperator (drawn to scale).  (Picture Source

 known of these is the distinctive backward-pointing crest of some Pteranodon species, though a few pterosaurs, such as the tapejarids and Nyctosaurus sported incredibly large crests that often incorporated keratinous or other soft tissue extensions of the bony crest base.

Since the 1990s, new discoveries and more thorough study of old specimens have shown that crests are far more widespread among pterosaurs than previously thought, due mainly to the fact that they were frequently extended by or composed completely of keratin, which does not fossilize as often as bone. In the cases of pterosaurs like Pterorhynchus and Pterodactylus, the true extent of these crests has only been uncovered using ultraviolet photography. The discovery of Pterorynchus and Austriadactylus, both crested "rhamphorhynchoids", showed that even primitive pterosaurs had crests (previously, crests were thought to be restricted to the more advanced pterodactyloids).


At least some pterosaurs were covered with hair-like filaments known as pycnofibres, similar to but not homologous (sharing a common structure) with mammalian hair. Pycnofibres were not true hair as seen in mammals, but a unique structure that developed a similar appearance through convergent evolution. Although in some cases actinofibrils (internal structural fibres) in the wing membrane have been mistaken for pycnofibres or true hair, some fossils such as those of Sordes pilosus (which translates as "hairy demon") and Jeholopterus ninchengensis do show the unmistakable imprints of pycnofibres on the head and body, not unlike modern-day bats, another example of convergent evolution. The presence of pycnofibres (and the demands of flight) imply that pterosaurs were endothermic (warm-blooded).

The term "pycnofibre", meaning "dense filament", was first coined in a paper on the soft tissue impressions of Jeholopterus by palaeontologist Alexander W.A. Kellner and colleagues in 2009.

History of discovery

Most pterosaur fossils are poorly preserved. Their bones were hollow and, when sediments piled on top of them, the bones were flattened. The best preserved fossils have come from the Araripe Plateau, Brazil. For some reason, when the bones were deposited, the sediments encapsulated the bones, rather than crushing them. This created three-dimensional fossils for paleontologists to study. The first find in the Araripe Plateau was made in 1974.

Most paleontologists now believe that pterosaurs were adapted for active flight, not just gliding as was earlier believed. Pterosaur fossils have been found on every continent. At least 60 genera of pterosaurs have been found to date, ranging from the size of a small bird to wingspans in excess of 10 metres (33 ft).

Natural predators

Pterosaurs are known to have been eaten by theropods. In the 1 July 2004 edition of Nature, paleontologist Eric Buffetaut discusses an early Cretaceous fossil of three cervical vertebrae of a pterosaur with the broken tooth of a spinosaur embedded in it. The vertebrae are known not to have been eaten and exposed to digestion, as the joints still articulated.

 Reproduction and life history

Fossils of pterosaurs only a few days to a week old (called flaplings) have been found, representing several pterosaur families, including pterodactylids, rhamphorhinchids, ctenochasmatids and azhdarchids. All preserve bones which show a relatively high degree of hardening (ossification) for their age, and wing proportions similar to adults. In fact, many pterosaur flaplings have been considered adults and placed in separate species in the past. Additionally, flaplings are normally found in the same sediments as adults and juveniles of the same species, such as the Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus flaplings found in the Solnhofen limestone of Germany, and Pterodaustro flaplings from Brazil. All are found in deep aquatic environment far from shore.

It is not known whether pterosaurs practiced any form of parental care, but their ability to fly as soon as they emerged from the egg and the numerous flaplings found in environments far from nests and alongside adults has led most researchers, including Christopher Bennett and David Unwin, to conclude that the young were only dependent on their parents for a very short period of time, while the wings grew long enough to fly, and left the nest to fend for themselves within days of hatching. Alternatively, they may have used stored yolk products for nourishment during their first few days of life, as in modern reptiles, rather than depend on parents for food.

Growth rates of pterosaurs once they hatched varied across different groups. In more
Fossil trackways show that pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus northropi were quadrupeds.   (Picture Source
 primitive, long-tailed pterosaurs ("rhamphorhynchoids") such as Rhamphorhynchus, the average growth rate during the first year of life was 130% to 173%, slightly faster than the growth rate of alligators. Growth in these species slowed after sexual maturity, and it would have taken more than three years for Rhamphorhynchus to attain maximum size. In contrast, the more advanced, large pterodactyloid pterosaurs such as Pteranodon grew to adult size within the first year of life. Additionally, pterodactyloids had determinate growth, meaning that the animals reached a fixed maximum adult size and stopped growing.


It was once thought that competition with early bird species may have resulted in the extinction of many of the pterosaurs. By the end of the Cretaceous, only large species of pterosaurs are known. The smaller species seem to have become extinct, their niche filled by birds. However, pterosaur decline (if actually present) seems unrelated to bird diversity. At the end of the Cretaceous period, the great extinction which wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and most avian dinosaurs as well, and many other animals, seemed to also take the pterosaurs. Alternatively, most pterosaurs may have been specialised for an ocean-going lifestyle. Consequently, when the K-T mass-extinction severely affected marine life that most pterosaurs fed on, they went extinct.

 Well-known genera

Examples of pterosaur genera include:


Pteranodon was 1.8 metres (six ft) long, with a wingspan of 7.5 m (25 ft), and lived during the late Cretaceous period.


Pterodactylus had a wingspan of 50–75 centimetres (20 to –30 inches), and lived during the late Jurassic on lake shores.


Pterodaustro was a Cretaceous pterosaur from South America with a wingspan around 1.33 metres and with over 500 tall, narrow teeth, which were presumably used in filter-feeding, much like modern flamingos. Also like flamingos, this pterosaur's diet may have resulted in the animal having a pink hue. It was South America's first pterosaur find.


Quetzalcoatlus had a wingspan of 10–11 metres (33–36 ft), and was among the largest flying animals ever. It lived during the late Cretaceous period.


Hatzegopteryx was the largest flying animal known to science. Although no complete fossil has been descovered, what little fossils paleontologists have found give the creature an estimated wingspan of roughly 12 metres (40 ft.)

In popular culture

Pterosaurs have been a staple of popular culture for as long as their cousins the dinosaurs, though they are usually not featured as prominently in films, literature or other art. Additionally, while the depiction of dinosaurs in popular media has changed radically in response to advances in paleontology, a mainly outdated picture of pterosaurs has persisted since the mid 20th century.

The number and diversity of pterosaurs in the popular consciousness is also not as high as it has been historically for dinosaurs. While the generic term "pterodactyl" is often used to describe these creatures, the animals depicted frequently represent either Pteranodon or Rhamphorhynchus, or a fictionalized hybrid of the two. Many children's toys and cartoons feature "pterodactyls" with Pteranodon-like crests and long, Rhamphorhynchus-like tails and teeth, a combination that never existed in nature. However, at least one type of pterosaur did have at least the Pteranodon-like crest and teeth—for example, the Ludodactylus, a name that means "toy finger" for its resemblance to old, inaccurate children's toys.

Pterosaurs were first used in fiction in Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World, and subsequent 1925 film adaptation. They have been used in a number of films and television programs since, including the 1933 film King Kong, and 1966 One Million Years B.C.. In the latter, animator Ray Harryhausen had to add inaccurate bat-like wing fingers to his stop motion models in order to keep the membranes from falling apart, though this particular error was common in art even before the film was made. Pterosaurs were mainly absent from notable film appearances until 2001, with Jurassic Park III. However, paleontologist Dave Hone has noted that even after the 40 intervening years, the pterosaurs in this film had not been significantly updated to reflect modern research. Among the errors he noted as persisting from the 1960s to the 2000s were teeth even in toothless species (the Jurassic Park III pterosaurs were intended to be Pteranodon, which translates as "toothless wing"), nesting behavior that was known to be inaccurate by 2001, and leathery wings, rather than the taut membranes of muscle fiber which was actually present and required for pterosaur flight.

A fictionalized mutation of a pterosaur was introduced in the 1956 Japanese film Rodan. The film was released by Toho, the same studio responsible for Godzilla. The character later appeared in a number of Godzilla films between 1964 and 2004.


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