Prehistoric Flying Reptiles: Pterosaurs

Dinosaurs walked on the ground.
At the same time, there were reptiles that could fly.
They could fly but did not walk well on the ground.
Some were huge and some were tiny.

Pterosaurs (terra-saws) were not dinosaurs, but flying reptiles. They lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. 'Pterosaur' means 'flying lizard'.

Pterosaurs had large brains and fur-covered bodies. Some were the size of today's sparrows, while others were far larger. They had light, hollow bones, like those of birds. Although they had similarities to today's birds and bats, scientists do not believe that pterosaurs are the ancestors of either.

Pterosaurs had hands. Three fingers were claws, but the long fourth finger was part of the wing. Thin leathery skin stretched from this to the foot to form a wing on either side. The wings were attached to the body and thigh. The wings had stiff fibres that were like the ribs of an umbrella. Scientists thought that pterosaurs were all gliders and did not flap their wings, but skeletons have been discovered with crests on the bones to which wing muscles would have been attached, which indicates they flew.

On land, pterosaurs probably crawled on all fours, like modern bats. They probably folded their wings back so that their fingers could grip the ground. Scientists are not sure how pterosaurs launched into flight. Some think they were so clumsy on land that they possibly jumped off cliffs or trees to get airborne. Others believe that they were able to land and take off in similar fashion to the birds of today.

Many pterosaur fossils and footprints have been found in areas next to seas or lakes, so they may have fed in a manner similar to today's water birds. Some had beaks similar to those of modern spoonbills or pelicans, or had strainer-like teeth to filter minute creatures from water. Some had long beaks which may have been used to plunge down into mud holes made by crustaceans.

Pterosaurs existed from the late Triassic period to the end of the Cretaceous period.

Triassic Period
The early pterosaurs had long tails, short necks, and long, narrow wings. They were the first flying vertebrates (animals with spines).

Eudimorphodon: One of the earliest of all pterosaurs, it had a wingspan of about 75 cm. It had large eyes, a short neck, many sharp teeth in pointed jaws. There was a diamond-shaped flap of skin at the end of a long, pointed tail that probably helped it steer when flying. It ate fish. It lived in the late Triassic.

Peteinosaurus: (say pet-INE-oh-SAW-rus) It lived about 222 to 215 million years ago in the Late Triassic period. It was a small, early pterosaur, with a wingspan of about 60 cm across. It weighed about 100 grams because it had very light bones. It had sharp, cone-like teeth. It caught and ate insects as it flew. The straight tail was about 20 cm long, and was used to steer when it was flying.

Jurassic Period
: There were many different kinds of rhamphorynchus during the Jurassic Period... the species existed on earth for about 30 million years. Rhamphorynchus had a wingspan about 1 m, and long, narrow jaws with sharp teeth pointing outwards. It probably ate small sea creatures that it caught by skimming the surface of the water with its beak. Its very long tail ended in a diamond-shaped flap.

Dimorphodon: It had a wingspan of just over 1 metre. It had deep, wide jaws rather like the beak of today's puffin. It had a diamond-shaped flap on the end of its long tail. Its legs stuck out at the sides of its body, so it appears they would not have been used much for walking. It is thought that dimorphodon may have used its strong claws to hang from tree branches or cliffs when not flying. It lived in the early Jurassic period.

Later in the Jurassic period there appeared other pterosaurs with shorter tails. Most of them probably flapped their wings to fly.

Pterodactylus: It was one of the first flying reptiles to be discovered. With a wingspan of about 90 cm, it had long, narrow jaws with sharp teeth. It ate insects, meat and fish. It had a short tail. It lived in the late Jurassic.

Pterodaustro: Its wingspan was just over 1 m. It looked a bit like the flamingo of today. Its long, curved beak had teeth like bristles. It may have fed on plankton and small crustaceans (shelled sea creatures).

Cretaceous Period
In the Cretaceous Period, the flying reptiles began to be a bit like dinosaurs: they became bigger and bigger. The really massive ones, such as Pteranodon and Quetzalcoatlus, had wing spans so big that they probably glided on the air currents most of the time.
Because they had such a huge wing span, small feet and a stiff neck, some scientists think that they may not have flown very much at all and may actually have spent time on the ground hunting small dinosaurs.

Pteranodon: Its name means 'winged and toothless'. It had a 7 m wingspan (the measurement from tip to tip of outstretched wings) and was probably about the size of a modern bus. It had a very long, bony head crest and a long beak with no teeth, although it was a carnivore. The sharp claws on its fingers would have been used to grab food. It had no tail. It was covered with small, down feathers. It is thought they may have hunted like pelicans do, scooping fish from the surface and swallowing them whole. It lived in the late Cretaceous period.

Quetzalcoatlus (kwet-zal-koh-at-lus)
Named after the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, it lived in the Late Cretaceous.
It was a huge pterosaur with a wingspan of up to 13 metres. It was the largest flying creature ever, and the last of the pterosaurs.

Even though it was huge, Quetzalcoatlus weighed only about 100 kg because its bones were light. It had a long neck and long toothless jaws. On top of its head there was a long bony crest. Paleontologists are unsure about how it lived. They know it was a carnivore, but some say it lived like a vulture does today, scavenging on the bodies of dead dinosaurs it found. Others believe that it used its long slender jaws to explore soft ground and shallow pools for crustaceans. Still others think it may have coasted slowly over the warm seas, scooping up surface fish.

If you use any part of this, acknowledge it in your bibliography like this:
Sydenham, S. & Thomas, R. Prehistoric Flying Reptiles [Online]

Back to Dinosaur pages index
Back to Animals
updated October 20113©