I know a lot of people will name a T-Rex, or a Triceratops, or even a Plesiosaur as their favorite dinosaur, but I’d have to say the dino-era species that fascinates me the most isn’t even a true dinosaur. It’s a Pterosaur!
These amazing creatures are often miss labeled as dinosaurs due to their reptilian appearance, and though they are indeed reptiles – the only reptiles to truly fly – they are only a relative of the famous mega lizards popularized by movies, books and museums. Pterosaurs occupied the earth for as long as the dinosaurs and many may have even preyed on and been preyed on by dinosaurs, coexisting with them as any other creatures do on the this wonderful rock we call home.
The thing that really gets me though, this the astounding variety of these creatures, along with, for me at least, the empowering story of their discovery.
Pterosaurs belong to a unique group of reptiles that split off from the proto-dinosaurs about 230 million years ago. Their long evolutionary history produced and astounding variety of species. Some were as small as seagulls (Jeholopterus – it may have also sucked blood like a vampire bat but that is not confirmed) while other species were as large as a small jet (Hatzegopteryx) with a wing span of nearly 40 ft! They had an astounding variety of body types as well, some have beaks or bill with small, large, wide, or thin crests, and most had varying degrees of teeth. Some, mainly the smaller species, were insect eaters, while others prayed on fish, small dinosaurs and perhaps, smaller pterosaurs. The insect eating pterosaurs may have been the first to evolve and fly. A surplus of flying insects would have been a fantastic way for a flying animal to get ahead. The easy access to food would have given them a unique niche, competition from other species would have been low and thus their reproductive success would have been high, leading to their global diversity.
We know pterosaurs and dinosaurs are related because of the two holes behind the eyes in their skulls. This means they are diapsid reptiles, which later evolved into the crocodiles, lizards, and birds of today. Its hard to properly place where pterosaurs fit in the evolutionary tree because they are so strange and even though the paleontological community cannot really decide what they are – or at least directly related to – they can agree that they are not “flying dinosaurs.”
The first recorded pterosaur fossil was discovered by Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. She was extraordinary from the very beginning of her life. When she was only 13 she unearthed a skeleton of a giant marine reptile: one of the first ichthyosaurs. And in 1828, while in her late 20s, she discovered Dimorphodon, the first pterosaur discovered outside continental Europe, on the beach cliffs around her home town. At the time, headlines celebrated Mary and her “flying dragon.”
As she grew older she continued to collect fossils, and eventually supported her family with a store that sold fossils to tourists. Her discoveries were so numerous that today there is an entire section of the Natural History Museum in London full of her discoveries. While researching Mary I found this short video detailing her truly astounding work, check it out!
Now, if your willing to, I have also found an amazing program talking about pterosaurs, and a team of scienticts attempting to create an accurate model of the creatures, that can fly! .
To be honest this has been one my favorite journeys when writing a post. I’d always been interested in pterosaurs, but I never imagined they were so varied, and advances, and, well, wonderful. I hope you learned something along the way, I certainly did!