Sunday, August 18, 2013

Pterodactylus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

"Pterodactyl" is a term thrown around by many to describe all kinds of prehistoric flying reptiles called pterosaurs by folks who don't know any better.  Today we will learn about the true owner of this overused term.  Enter Pterodactylus antiquus

Life reconstruction of Pterodactylus antiquus by Christopher DiPiazza.

Pterodactylus lived in what is now Germany during the late Jurassic Period roughly 150 million years ago.  Fossils believed to belong to Pterodactylus have also been found in other parts of Europe as well as in Africa.  Pterodactylus is a well studied animal that is known from many specimens from small juveniles all the way up to adults with over three-foot wingspans.  Many of these specimens are fully articulated skeletons.   

Evidence shows, thanks to a healthy amount of individual specimens, that Pterodactylus would have grown relatively slowly.  From what the fossils show, a Pterodactylus would have been adult size at about two years of age but would continue to slowly grow throughout its life much like many other reptiles including modern crocodiles and turtles.  This is very different from the growth patterns of birds, which are full size usually within one year of hatching.  I feel it is important to mention that pterosaurs are most definitely NOT the same as birds even though they seem similar and would have occupied some of the same niches that birds do today. 

Pterodactylus fossil

Pterodactylus was one of the earliest known pterosaurs from the group, called pterodactyloidae, possessing proportionally large heads and short tails.  All earlier known pterosaurs not belonging to this group had long tails and shorter necks.  (check out Dimorphodon for a comparison) 

Pterodactylus was the first ever discovered pterosaur to be recognized by science back in the late 1700s and was at first believed by scientists to have been a sea creature and that the wings were used like fins!  It wasn't until the year 1800 that Pterodactylus was properly identified as an animal adapted for flight.  For a while after that every new kind of pterosaur that was discovered was lumped into the same genus and therefore were all called "pterodactyls".  Unfortunately this term is thrown around by many people when referring to any kind of pterosaur even today!  However it is from Pterodactylus that the name describing the entire group of flying reptiles, the pterosaurs, comes from.  This is fitting not only because Pterodactylus was the first to be discovered but also because its name translates to "wing finger" which is a defining morphological characteristics for all members within the pterosaur group.  (All pterosaurs have wings made up of a skin membrane attaching from one super elongated fourth finger down to the leg.) 

Just a little pterosaur humor.

Although famous for being able to fly, there is strong evidence that Pterodactylus was comfortable walking on the ground as well.  It may have fed by wading in shallow water plucking small prey with its long jaws which were lined with many sharp, cone-shaped teeth.  This makes sense since the environment Pterodactylus was living in was near salt and perhaps brackish water where having a niche similar to that of a modern wading bird would work nicely.

That's all for this week!  As always don't hesitate to comment below or on our facebook page!  I am always happy to cover requests.


Bennett, S.C. (1996). "Year-classes of pterosaurs from the Solnhofen Limestone of Germany: Taxonomic and Systematic Implications". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 16 (3): 432–444. doi:10.1080/02724634.1996.10011332.

Bennett, S. Christopher (2013). "New information on body size and cranial display structures of Pterodactylus antiquus, with a revision of the genus". Paläontologische Zeitschrift. in press. doi:10.1007/s12542-012-0159-8

Taquet, P., and Padian, K. (2004). "The earliest known restoration of a pterosaur and the philosophical origins of Cuvier's Ossemens Fossiles". Comptes Rendus Palevol 3 (2): 157–175. doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2004.02.002

Wellnhofer, Peter. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. New York: Crescent, 1991. Print.

Witton, Mark P. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

1 comment:

  1. here's one with a name that stuck me


    Monstrous Murderer.

    That's my next request. Take your time as usual.