AskDefine | Define pterosaur

Dictionary Definition

pterosaur n : extinct flying reptile of the Jurassic and Cretaceous having a birdlike beak and membranous wings supported by the very long fourth digit of each forelimb [syn: flying reptile]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. any of several extinct flying reptiles, of the order Pterosauria, including the pterodactyls

Extensive Definition

Pterosaurs (, from the Greek πτερόσαυρος, pterosauros, meaning "winged lizard", often referred to as pterodactyls, from the Greek πτεροδάκτυλος, pterodaktulos, meaning "winged finger" /ˌtɛrəˈdæktɨl/) were flying reptiles of the clade or order Pterosauria. They existed from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous Period (228 to 65 million years ago). Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight. Their wings were formed by a membrane of skin, muscle, and other tissues stretching from the thorax to a dramatically lengthened fourth finger. Earlier species had long, fully-toothed jaws and long tails, while later forms had a highly reduced tail, and some lacked teeth. 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.
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 terrestrial reptiles with a unique upright stance (superorder Dinosauria), and therefore excludes the pterosaurs, as well as the various groups of extinct aquatic reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs.

History of discovery

The first pterosaur fossil was described by the Italian naturalist Cosimo Collini in 1784. Collini misinterpreted his specimen as a sea-going creature that used its long front limbs as paddles. A few scientists continued to support the aquatic interpretation even until 1830, when the German zoologist Johann Georg Wagler suggested that Pterodactylus used its wings as flippers. Georges Cuvier first suggested that pterosaurs were flying creatures in 1801, and coined the name "Ptero-dactyle" 1809 for a specimen recovered in Germany; however, due to the standardization of scientific names, the official name for this species became Pterodactylus, though the name "pterodactyl" continued to be popularly applied to all members of this first specimen's order.
Since the first pterosaur fossil was discovered in the Late Jurassic Solnhofen limestone in 1784, twenty-nine kinds of pterosaurs have been found in those deposits alone. A famous early UK find was an example of Dimorphodon by Mary Anning, at Lyme Regis in 1828. The name Pterosauria was coined by Johann Jakob Kaup in 1834, though the name Ornithosauria (or "bird lizards", Bonaparte, 1838) was sometimes used in the early literature.


Pterosaur wings were formed by membranes of skin and other tissues, strengthened by various types of closely spaced fibers called actinofibrillae. The membranes attached to the extremely long fourth finger of each arm and extended along the sides of the body. A bone unique to pterosaurs, known as the pteroid, connected to the wrist and helped to support a membrane (the propatagium) between the wrist and shoulder. It has been argued that the pteroid might have been able to swing forward to extend this membrane,, although this is strongly contested by other researchers. 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).
There has been considerable argument among paleontologists about whether the wings attached to the hindlimbs as well. Fossils of the rhamphorhynchoid Sordes, the anurognathid Jeholopterus, and a pterodactyloid from the Santana Formation seem to demonstrate that the wing membrane did attach to the hindlimbs, at least in some species. However, modern bats and flying squirrels show considerable variation in the extent of their wing membranes and it is possible that, like these groups, different species of pterosaur had different wing designs. Indeed, analysis of pterosaur limb proportions shows that there was considerable variation, possibly reflecting a variety of wing-plans. Many if not all pterosaurs also had webbed feet, and although these have been considered to be evidence of swimming, they may have had an aerodynamic function. However, a large number of pterosaur trackways are now known, with a distinctive four-toed hind foot and three-toed front foot; these are the unmistakable prints of pterosaurs walking on all fours.
Unlike most vertebrates, which walk on their toes with ankles held off the ground (digitigrade), fossil footprints show that pterosaurs stood with the entire foot in contact with the ground (plantigrade), in a manner similar to humans and bears. Footprints from azhdarchids show that at least some pterosaurs walked with an erect, rather than sprawling, posture.
Though traditionally depicted as ungainly and awkward when on the ground, the anatomy of at least some pterosaurs (particularly pterodactyloids) suggests that they were competent walkers and runners. The forelimb bones of azhdarchids and ornithocheirids were unusually long compared to other pterosaurs, and in azhdarchids, the bones of the arm and hand (metacarpals) were particularly elongated, and azhdarchid front limbs as a whole were proportioned similarly to fast-running ungulate mammals. Their hind limbs, on the other hand, were not built for speed, but they were long compared with most pterosaurs, and allowed for a long stride length. While azhdarchid pterosaurs probably could not run, they would have been relatively fast and energy efficient.


Very little is known about pterosaur reproduction. A single pterosaur egg has been found in the quarries of Liaoning, the same place that yielded the famous 'feathered' dinosaurs. The egg was squashed flat with no signs of cracking, so evidently the eggs had leathery shells, as in modern lizards. The embryo's wing membranes were well developed, suggesting pterosaurs were ready to fly soon after birth. This is corroborated by very young animals found in the Solnhofen limestone beds, where they presumably flew to the middle of a lagoon, fell in and drowned. It is not known whether pterosaurs practised parental care, but their comparatively early flight capabilities suggest the young were not completely dependent on parents as most birds are.
A study of pterosaur eggshell structure and chemistry published in 2007 indicated that it is likely pterosaurs buried their eggs, like modern crocodile and turtles. Egg-burying would have been beneficial to the early evolution of pterosaurs, as it allows for more weight-reducing adaptations, but this method of reproduction also would have put limits on the variety of environments pterosaurs could live in, and may have disadvantaged them when they began to face ecological competition from birds. The alternative would be for the mother to retain the egg within the body until just prior to hatching, as some lizards do, but archosaurs are incapable of.

Evolution and extinction


Because pterosaur anatomy has been so heavily modified for flight, and immediate "missing link" predecessors have not so far been described, the ancestry of pterosaurs is not well understood. Several hypotheses have been advanced, with the most common in recent years being links to ornithodirans like Scleromochlus, an ancestry among the archosauriforms like Euparkeria (a more traditional view), or related to prolacertiformes like Sharovipteryx. At least one pterosaur specialist, David Unwin, finds none of these options convincing for various anatomical reasons.

Phylogeny and classification

Classification of pterosaurs has historically been difficult, because there were many gaps in the fossil record. Many new discoveries are now filling in these gaps and giving us a better picture of the evolution of pterosaurs. Traditionally, they are organized into two suborders:
  • Rhamphorhynchoidea (Plieninger, 1901): A group of early, basal ("primitive") pterosaurs, many of which had long tails and short metacarpal bones in the wing. They were small, and their fingers were still adapted to climbing . They appeared in the Late Triassic period, and lasted until the late Jurassic. Rhamphorhynchoidea is a paraphyletic group (since the pterodactyloids evolved directly from them and not from a common ancestor), so with the increasing use of cladistics it has fallen out of favor in most technical literature.
Listing of families and superfamilies within Pterosauria, after Unwin 2006.
The precise relationships between pterosaurs is still unsettled. However, several newer studies are beginning to make things clearer. Cladogram simplified after Unwin.


Competition with early avian dinosaur 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, though a lack of small pterosaurs in the fossil record could also be a result of poor preservation due to the fragility of their skeletons. At the end of the Cretaceous period, the great extinction which wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs plus 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:
  • Dsungaripterus had a wingspan of 3 metres (10 ft), an unusual bony crest running along its snout, and long, narrow, curved jaws with a pointed tip. It lived during the early Cretaceous period.
  • Pteranodon was 1.8 metres (six feet) long, with a wingspan of 7.5 m (25 ft), and lived during the late Cretaceous period.
  • Pterodactylus had a wingspan of 50 to 75 centimeters (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 feet), and was among the largest flying animals ever. It lived during the late Cretaceous period.
  • Rhamphorhynchus was a Jurassic pterosaur with a vane at the end of its tail, which may have acted to stabilise the tail in flight.

Pterosaurs in popular culture

Pterosaurs are a staple of popular culture. While the generic term "pterodactyl" is often used to describe these creatures, the animal depicted is frequently a Pteranodon or other specific species of pterosaur, or a fictionalized hybrid of several species. 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--the Ludodactylus, a name that means "toy finger" for its resemblance to old, inaccurate children's toys. Notable examples of older fictional works featuring pterosaurs include Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World and the 1933 film King Kong.

Living pterosaur hoax

It was reported in an article in The Illustrated London News (February 9, 1856, page 166) that, in 1856, workmen laboring in a tunnel for a railway line, between Saint-Dizier and Nancy, in France, were cutting through Jurassic limestone when a large creature stumbled out from inside it. It fluttered its wings, made a croaking noise and dropped dead. According to the workers, the creature had a wingspan, four legs joined by a membrane, black leathery skin, talons for feet and a toothed mouth. A local student of paleontology identified the animal as a pterodactyl. The report had the animal turn to dust, as soon as it had died.
This incredible hoax was stimulated in part by contemporary Franco-Prussian palaeontological rivalry. The Solnhofen limestone from Bavaria (in which Archaeopteryx would later be discovered) was producing many prized fossils, each of which was proudly announced by German paleontologists. The tunnel in question was through limestone of similar age to the Solnhofen Limestone, so it presented an opportunity for a shocking story by the French.

External links

Further reading

  • Unwin, David M. (2006). Pterosaurs From Deep Time. Pi Press: New York. ISBN 0-13-146308-X
  • Wellnhofer P (1991): Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs, Crescent Books

Notes and references

pterosaur in Asturian: Pterosauria
pterosaur in Bulgarian: Птерозаври
pterosaur in Catalan: Pterosaure
pterosaur in Czech: Ptakoještěři
pterosaur in Danish: Flyveøgler
pterosaur in German: Flugsaurier
pterosaur in Spanish: Pterosauria
pterosaur in Esperanto: Flugsaŭroj
pterosaur in French: Pterosauria
pterosaur in Galician: Pterosauria
pterosaur in Korean: 익룡
pterosaur in Croatian: Eudimorphodon
pterosaur in Italian: Pterosauria
pterosaur in Hebrew: פטרוזאוריה
pterosaur in Lithuanian: Pterozaurai
pterosaur in Hungarian: Pterosauria
pterosaur in Dutch: Pterosauriërs
pterosaur in Japanese: 翼竜
pterosaur in Norwegian: Flygeøgler
pterosaur in Norwegian Nynorsk: Flygeøgle
pterosaur in Occitan (post 1500): Pterosaures
pterosaur in Polish: Pterozaury
pterosaur in Portuguese: Pterossauro
pterosaur in Romanian: Pterozaur
pterosaur in Russian: Птерозавры
pterosaur in Simple English: Pterosaur
pterosaur in Slovak: Pterosauria
pterosaur in Serbian: Птеросаури
pterosaur in Finnish: Lentoliskot
pterosaur in Swedish: Flygödlor
pterosaur in Chinese: 翼龍目
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