Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ornithocheirus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Didn't get enough pterosaurs from our interview with Mark Witton this past Thursday?  Never fear!  This week we will be looking at one of these awesome flying reptiles, Ornithocheirus mesembrinus!  Made famous by the 1999 BBC TV special, "Walking with Dinosaurs", Ornithocheirus was a unique-looking animal.  It was large, the largest known specimen likely had a wingspan of about twenty eight feet.  "Walking with Dinosaurs" inaccurately portrayed it much larger, however, at almost forty feet.  (What is it with them and blowing up already impressive animals anyway?)  It lived in what is now Brazil during the Early Cretaceous period about 115 million years ago.

Ornithocheirus mesembrinus life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza

The genus, Ornithocheirus, actually includes several different species that over the years have changed names a few times.  The one I spent long slaving hours over my desk illustrating for this post more or less want to focus on today used to belong to a different genus called Tropeognathus.  It has since been lumped with Ornithocheirus, however.  Same animal, just a different name made up by us, humans, in a futile attempt to make ourselves less confused about how we classify animals.

Skull from Ornithocheirus mesembrinus.

In addition to being rather large, this species of Ornithocheirus had a long tapering snout, lined with straight, pointed teeth and a bony half-disc-shaped crest on its upper and lower jaws.  This pterosaur probably specialized in hunting fish and other marine prey. The crests could have allowed it to dip its mouth into the water to catch food without worrying about drag while on the wing.  It and other members of its family also had really large heads, long arms but proportionally teeny-tiny bodies and hind limbs.  This is probably an evolutionary result of an animal that spends a lot of its time soaring over the water (think about pelicans and albatross).  When alive, it would have had large and well developed neck, chest and arm muscles but relatively wimpy hind legs.  I think I know a few dudes at the gym who could relate to Ornithocheirus now that I think about it.

Ornithocheiroid pterosaurs: sporting disproportionally muscular upper bodies before it was cool.

Ornithocheirus has also made an appearance as a major character in an animated series that aired on Cartoon Network called "Secret Saturdays".  The character's name was "Zon" because she came from the Amazon.  Pretty accurate!

"Zon" from "Secret Saturdays".

That's all for this week!  Special thanks to Dr. Mark Witton, an expert on pterosaurs, for coaching me through my illustration at the beginning of this post!  As always if you would like to see a certain prehistoric animal reviewed on here just give us a shout in the comments below or on our facebook page


Kellner, A. W. A.; Campos, D. A.; Sayão, J. M.; Saraiva, A. N. A. F.; Rodrigues, T.; Oliveira, G.; Cruz, L. A.; Costa, F. R. et al. (2013). "The largest flying reptile from Gondwana: A new specimen of Tropeognathus cf. T. Mesembrinus Wellnhofer, 1987 (Pterodactyloidea, Anhangueridae) and other large pterosaurs from the Romualdo Formation, Lower Cretaceous, Brazil". Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 85: 113.

Wellnhofer, P. 1987. New crested pterosaurs from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil. Mitteilungen der Bayerischen Staatsammlung für Paläontologie und Historische Geologie, 27, 175-186.

Wellnhofer, P. (1991). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. New York: Barnes and Noble Books. pp. 124.


  1. Great image, Chris. One minor nitpick with your text: a very recent paper has described a Tropeognathus/Ornithocheirus specimen which likely spanned 8-9 m. Not quite as big as the WWD animal, but not far off. Otherwise, great post!

  2. Interesting! I can tweak that. Thank you for everything Dr. Witton!