|A sample of various pterosaurs.|
|Distribution of pterosaur fossil locations. Colored species or genera names correspond to their taxonomic group.[a]|
There were two major types of pterosaurs. Basal pterosaurs (also called 'non-pterodactyloid pterosaurs' or '
Pterosaurs sported coats of hair-like filaments known as
Pterosaurs are often referred to by popular media or the general public as "flying dinosaurs", but dinosaurs are defined as the descendants of the
Pterosaurs had a variety of lifestyles. Traditionally seen as fish-eaters, the group is now understood to have also included hunters of land animals, insectivores, fruit eaters and even predators of other pterosaurs. They reproduced by eggs, some fossils of which have been discovered.
The anatomy of pterosaurs was highly modified from their reptilian ancestors by the adaptation to flight. Pterosaur
Pterodactyloids include the clades Ornithocheiroidea (
The two groups overlapped in time, but the earliest pterosaurs in the fossil record are basal pterosaurs, and the latest pterosaurs are pterodactyloids.
The position of the clade Anurognathidae (
Pterosaurs had a wide range of sizes, though they were generally large. The smallest species had a wingspan no less than 25 centimetres (10 inches). The most sizeable forms represent the largest known animals ever to fly, with wingspans of up to 10–11 metres (33–36 feet).
Standing, such giants could reach the height of a modern giraffe. Traditionally, it was assumed that pterosaurs were extremely light relative to their size. Later, it was understood that this would imply unrealistically low densities of their soft tissues. Some modern estimates therefore extrapolate a weight of up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds) for the largest species.
Skull, teeth, and crests
Compared to the other vertebrate flying groups, the birds and bats, pterosaur skulls were typically quite large.
In some cases, fossilized keratinous beak tissue has been preserved, though in toothed forms, the beak is small and restricted to the jaw tips and does not involve the teeth. Some advanced beaked forms were toothless, such as the Pteranodontidae and Azhdarchidae, and had larger, more extensive, and more bird-like beaks. Some groups had specialised tooth forms. The Istiodactylidae had recurved teeth for eating meat. Ctenochasmatidae used combs of numerous needle-like teeth for filter feeding; Pterodaustro could have over a thousand bristle-like teeth. Dsungaripteridae covered their teeth with jawbone tissue for a crushing function. If teeth were present, they were placed in separate tooth sockets. Replacement teeth were generated behind, not below, the older teeth.
The public image of pterosaurs is defined by their elaborate head crests. This was influenced by the distinctive backward-pointing crest of the well-known Pteranodon. The main positions of such crests are the front of the snout, as an outgrowth of the premaxillae, or the rear of the skull as an extension of the parietal bones in which case it is called a "supraoccipital crest". Front and rear crests can be present simultaneously and might be fused into a single larger structure, the most expansive of which is shown by the Tapejaridae. Nyctosaurus sported a bizarre antler-like crest. The crests were only a few millimetres thin transversely. The bony crest base would typically be extended by keratinous or other soft tissue.
Since the 1990s, new discoveries and a more thorough study of old specimens have shown that crests are far more widespread among pterosaurs than previously assumed. That they were extended by or composed completely of keratin, which does not fossilize easily, had misled earlier research. For Pterorhynchus and Pterodactylus, the true extent of these crests has only been uncovered using ultraviolet photography. While fossil crests used to be restricted to the more advanced Pterodactyloidea, Pterorhynchus and Austriadactylus show that even some early pterosaurs possessed them.
Like the upper jaws, the paired lower jaws of pterosaurs were very elongated. In advanced forms, they tended to be shorter than the upper cranium because the jaw joint was in a more forward position. The front lower jaw bones, the dentaries or ossa dentalia, were at the tip tightly fused into a central symphysis. This made the lower jaws function as a single connected whole, the mandible. The symphysis was often very thin transversely and long, accounting for a considerable part of the jaw length, up to 60%. If a crest was present on the snout, the symphysis could feature a matching mandible crest, jutting out to below. Toothed species also bore teeth in their dentaries. The mandible opened and closed in a simple vertical or "orthal" up-and-down movement.
The neck of pterosaurs was relatively long and straight. In pterodactyloids, the neck is typically longer than the torso. This length is not caused by an increase of the number of vertebrae, which is invariably seven. Some researchers include two transitional "cervicodorsals" which brings the number to nine. Instead, the vertebrae themselves became more elongated, up to eight times longer than wide. Nevertheless, the cervicals were wider than high, implying a better vertical than horizontal neck mobility. Pterodactyloids have lost all neck ribs. Pterosaur necks were probably rather thick and well-muscled, especially vertically.
The torso was relatively short and egg-shaped. The vertebrae in the back of pterosaurs originally might have numbered eighteen. With advanced species a growing number of these tended to be incorporated into the
The tails of pterosaurs were always rather slender. This means that the
The breastbone, formed by fused paired sterna, was wide. It had only a shallow keel. Via sternal ribs, it was at its sides attached to the dorsal ribs. At its rear, a row of belly ribs or gastralia was present, covering the entire belly. To the front, a long point, the cristospina, jutted obliquely upwards. The rear edge of the breastbone was the deepest point of the thorax. Clavicles or interclavicles were completely absent.
Pterosaur wings were formed by bones and membranes of skin and other tissues. The primary membranes attached to the extremely long fourth finger of each arm and extended along the sides of the body. Where they ended has been very controversial but since the 1990s a dozen specimens with preserved soft tissue have been found that seem to show they attached to the ankles. The exact curvature of the trailing edge, however, is still equivocal.
While historically thought of as simple leathery structures composed of skin, research has since shown that the wing membranes of pterosaurs were highly complex dynamic structures suited to an active style of flight.
As shown by cavities in the wing bones of larger species and soft tissue preserved in at least one specimen, some pterosaurs extended their system of respiratory
Parts of the wing
The pterosaur wing membrane is divided into three basic units. The first, called the propatagium ("fore membrane"), was the forward-most part of the wing and attached between the wrist and shoulder, creating the "leading edge" during flight. The brachiopatagium ("arm membrane") was the primary component of the wing, stretching from the highly elongated fourth finger of the hand to the hindlimbs. Finally, at least some pterosaur groups had a membrane that stretched between the legs, possibly connecting to or incorporating the tail, called the uropatagium; the extent of this membrane is not certain, as studies on Sordes seem to suggest that it simply connected the legs but did not involve the tail (rendering it a cruropatagium). A common interpretation is that non-pterodactyloid pterosaurs had a broader uro/cruropatagium stretched between their long fifth toes, with pterodactyloids, lacking such toes, only having membranes running along the legs.
There has been considerable argument among paleontologists about whether the main wing membranes (brachiopatagia) attached to the hindlimbs, and if so, where. Fossils of the rhamphorhynchoid
The bony elements of the arm formed a mechanism to support and extend the wing. Near the body, the
A bone unique to pterosaurs, known as the pteroid, connected to the wrist and helped to support the forward membrane (the propatagium) between the wrist and shoulder. Evidence of webbing between the three free fingers of the pterosaur forelimb suggests that this forward membrane may have been more extensive than the simple pteroid-to-shoulder connection traditionally depicted in life restorations. The position of the pteroid bone itself has been controversial. Some scientists, notably Matthew Wilkinson, have argued that the pteroid pointed forward, extending the forward membrane and allowing it to function as an adjustable flap. This view was contradicted in a 2007 paper by Chris Bennett, who showed that the pteroid did not articulate as previously thought and could not have pointed forward, but rather was directed inward toward the body as traditionally interpreted. Specimens of Changchengopterus pani and Darwinopterus linglongtaensis show the pteroid in articulation with the proximal syncarpal, suggesting that the pteroid articulated with the 'saddle' of the radiale (proximal syncarpal) and that both the pteroid and preaxial carpal were migrated centralia.
The pterosaur wrist consists of two inner (proximal, at the side of the long bones of the arm) and four outer (distal, at the side of the hand) carpals (wrist bones), excluding the pteroid bone, which may itself be a modified distal carpal. The proximal carpals are fused together into a "syncarpal" in mature specimens, while three of the distal carpals fuse to form a distal syncarpal. The remaining distal carpal, referred to here as the medial carpal, but which has also been termed the distal lateral, or pre-axial carpal, articulates on a vertically elongate biconvex facet on the anterior surface of the distal syncarpal. The medial carpal bears a deep concave fovea that opens anteriorly, ventrally and somewhat medially, within which the pteroid articulates, according to Wilkinson.
In derived pterodactyloids like
When standing, pterosaurs probably rested on their metacarpals, with the outer wing folded to behind. In this position, the "anterior" sides of the metacarpals were rotated to the rear. This would point the smaller fingers obliquely to behind. According to Bennett, this would imply that the wingfinger, able to describe the largest arc of any wing element, up to 175°, was not folded by flexion but by an extreme extension. The wing was automatically folded when the elbow was bowed.
A laser-simulated fluorescence scan on Pterodactylus also identified a membranous "fairing" (area conjunctioning the wing with the body at the neck), as opposed to the feathered or fur-composed "fairing" seen in birds and bats respectively.
The front of the pubic bones articulated with a unique structure, the paired prepubic bones. Together these formed a cusp covering the rear belly, between the pelvis and the belly ribs. The vertical mobility of this element suggests a function in breathing, compensating the relative rigidity of the chest cavity.
The hindlimbs of pterosaurs were strongly built, yet relative to their wingspans smaller than those of birds. They were long in comparison to the torso length.
There was a clear difference between early pterosaurs and advanced species regarding the form of the fifth digit. Originally, the fifth
The first to fourth toes were long. They had two, three, four and five phalanges respectively. Often the third toe was longest; sometimes the fourth. Flat joints indicate a limited mobility. These toes were clawed but the claws were smaller than the hand claws.
The rare conditions that allowed for the fossilisation of pterosaur remains, sometimes also preserved soft tissues. Modern
Most or all pterosaurs had
The presence of pycnofibers strongly indicates that pterosaurs were endothermic (warm-blooded). They aided thermoregulation, as is common in warm-blooded animals who need insulation to prevent excessive heat-loss. Pycnofibers were flexible, short filaments, about five to seven millimetres long and rather simple in structure with a hollow central canal. Pterosaur pelts might have been comparable in density to many Mesozoic mammals.[b]
Relation with feathers
Pterosaur filaments could share a common origin with feathers, as speculated in 2002 by Czerkas and Ji.
A 2018 study of the remains of two small Jurassic-age pterosaurs from Inner Mongolia, China, found that pterosaurs had a wide array of pycnofiber shapes and structures, as opposed to the homogeneous structures that had generally been assumed to cover them. Some of these had frayed ends, very similar in structure to four different feather types known from birds or other dinosaurs but almost never known from pterosaurs prior to the study, suggesting homology. A response to this study was published in 2020, where it was suggested that the structures seen on the anurognathids were actually a result of the decomposition of aktinofibrils: a type of fibre used to strengthen and stiffen the wing. However, in a response to this, the authors of the 2018 paper point to the fact that the presence of the structures extend past the patagium, and the presence of both aktinofibrils and filaments on Jeholopterus ningchengensis and Sordes pilosus. The various forms of filament structure present on the anurognathids in the 2018 study would also require a form of decomposition that would cause the different 'filament' forms seen. They therefore conclude that the most parsimonious interpretation of the structures is that they are filamentous proto-feathers. But Liliana D’Alba points out that the description of the preserved integumentary structures on the two anurogmathid specimens is still based upon gross morphology. She also points out that Pterorhynchus was described to have feathers to support the claim that feathers had a common origin with Ornithodirans but was argued against by several authors. The only method to assure if it was homologous to feathers is to use a scanning electron microscope.
In 2022, a new fossil of Tupandactylus cf. imperator was found to have melanosomes in forms that signal an earlier than anticipated development of the patterns found in extant feathers than previously thought. In these fossils, it appears as though the feather melanosomes took on a more complex form than the melanosome organization in scales that near relatives of Tupandactylus had. This discovery is one of many that leads us away from many previous theories of feathers evolving directly from scales in reptiles, given the significant distinction of melanosome organization and content between the two. This indicates a distinct form of melanosomes within feather structures at the time, different from other contemporary feathers that did not carry this formation. The feather fossils obtained from this specimen also suggested the presence of Stage IIIa feathers, a new discovery which may also suggest that more complex feather structures were present at this time. Previously, no Stage III feather forms had been discovered in this time. This study contains multiple indications about the development of feather forms. These include a more precise estimate for the development of avian feather forms, as well as a more ancient ancestor that contained the origins of feather-specific melanosome signaling found in extant birds.
History of discovery
In 1800, Johann Hermann first suggested that it represented a flying creature in a letter to Georges Cuvier. Cuvier agreed in 1801, understanding it was an extinct flying reptile. In 1809, he coined the name Ptéro-Dactyle, "wing-finger". This was in 1815 Latinised to Pterodactylus. At first most species were assigned to this genus and ultimately "pterodactyl" was popularly and incorrectly applied to all members of Pterosauria. Today, paleontologists limit the term to the genus Pterodactylus or members of the Pterodactyloidea.
In 1812 and 1817,
In the US,
Meanwhile, finds from the Solnhofen had continued, accounting for the majority of complete high quality specimens discovered.
In contrast, English and American paleontologists by the middle of the twentieth century largely lost interest in pterosaurs. They saw them as failed evolutionary experiments, cold-blooded and scaly, that hardly could fly, the larger species only able to glide, being forced to climb trees or throw themselves from cliffs to achieve a take-off. In 1914, for the first time pterosaur aerodynamics were quantitatively analysed, by
The situation for dinosaurs was comparable. From the 1960s onwards, a
This development accelerated through the exploitation of two new Lagerstätten.
Even more productive was the Early Cretaceous Chinese
In 2017 a fossil from a 170-million-year-old pterosaur, later named as the species
Evolution and extinction