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Pterosaurs : Pterodactyl and Pteranodon

"Pterodactyl" is a generic term used by people to refer to two famous pterosaurs of the Mesozoic Era: Pteranodon and Pterodactylus. Ironically though, these two flying reptiles were not really related and they were both interesting enough to earn their own names.

It is not known when the word pterodactyl has become synonymous with pterosaurs in general, and more particularly Pteranodon and Pterodactylus, but this term is generally despised by paleontologists who prefer to use the real name of pterosaur species (there are more than a hundred). In this article, perterodactyl will be synonymous with Pterodactylus.

What is a pterosaur?

First, pterosaurs were not dinosaurs but a family of large flying reptiles that included Pterodactyl and Pteranodon. There are more than 150 species of flying reptiles classified as pterosaurs. In fact, they are so numerous that there are entire exhibitions devoted to them. Some were small enough to do in the palm of the hand while others had 30-foot wingspans. Some had long necks and protruding beaks while others had sturdy heads and long tails. Pterosaurs appeared during the Upper Triassic and traveled through the heavens until the end of the Cretaceous period, for more than 150 million years (228 to 66 million years ago). Modern birds do not descend from pterosaurs; rather, the ancestors of the birds were small feathered terrestrial dinosaurs like the Velociraptor.

The crest of pterosaurs

One of the features of the pterosaurs is the ridge that adorned their skulls. Although it was initially thought that they did not have any, it is now known that the ridges were widely spread in many species of pterosaurs and that they could take many forms. For example, some pterosaurs had large bone ridges, while others consisted only of pulpit. The crest of these flying reptiles could even look like a boat sail; made of a membrane sheet joining two big bones on the head.

Varied diet

Pterosaurs were mainly carnivorous but some species were also frugivorous and insectivorous. The diet of these reptiles greatly depended on where they lived. Terrestrial pterosaurs fed on carcasses, baby dinosaurs, lizards, eggs, insects and a variety of other animals. Those who lived near the water preferred fish, squid, crab and other seafood. Modeling experiments have shown that aquatic pterosaurs had a tendency to dive rapidly towards food before rising abruptly in the air to avoid drowning. These creatures did not spend much time on the surface of the water.

First fossil discovery

Pterodactyl is the first pterosaur discovered. Identified in 1784 by Italian scientist Cosimo Collini, he initially thought it was a species of marine creature that used its wings as paddles. In 1801, a French naturalist named George Cuvier proposed that these creatures could fly. A few years later, after discovering a skeleton fossil in the Bavarian region of Germany, he coined the word "Ptero-dactyl". This word was used until scientists realized that there were different kinds of flying reptiles. "Pterodactyl" is however still very popular.

Pterodactylus antiquus

Fossil of Pterodactylus antiquus

Pterodactylus antiquus, or simply Pterodactyl, is a pterosaur species that lived in the Jurassic period (about 150 million years ago) in Europe and Africa. "Pterodactyl" combines the Greek words "wing" (ptero) and "finger" (dactyle). Unlike Pteranodon, which was rather large, this flying reptile was relatively small with wingspans up to 3.5 feet (1.06 meters) in adulthood. In addition, it weighed only 10 or 20 pounds at the most.

Fossils in Bavaria

Pterodactyl fossils are common in the state of Bavaria, Germany. At the time of the Jurassic, this area was a wet marsh on the edge of an ancient sea. The organisms that fell or died in the swamps became buried in soft mud. This mud slowly hardened to become limestone and turned the bodies of organisms into fossils.


The Pterodactyl flew with wings formed from a hard membrane that stretched from its body to its elongated fourth finger. The fourth finger in this flying reptile exceeded the tailbone of the animal. These wings had a span of about 1 meter (3 feet) and were not very imposing. The Pterodactyl had a long beak that was filled with about 90 teeths. It used its teeth to catch fishes, its main source of food. It also ate insects occasionally. Pterodactyl was completely reptilian and did not have feathers.

Pterodactyl was not a dinosaur

Contrary to popular belief, Pterodactyl is not a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are generally considered to be standing up, either on two legs or on four legs. The Pterodactyl spent much of its life flying and the rest of the time it waddled on its hind legs and pointed wings. It is often portrayed as flying low near the shoreline and picking small fish out of the water like a modern seagull.

Kryptodrakon progenitor

Until recently, it was believed that pterodactyls only lived close to the sea since all fossils were found in oceanic sediments. The discovery of a new species inland (in a floodplain woodland), the Kryptodrakon progenitor, indicates that some of these ancient flying lizards lived and evolved away from marine environments. Kryptodrakon was dug in the Shishiugou Formation in China and is the oldest known pterodactyl.


Pteranodon fossil

Pteranodon is the emblem of pterosaurs and it is its image that comes to mind when we think about them. This large flying reptile lived in North America during the Upper Cretaceous era and had a wingspan of up to 20 feet (3x more than the Crowned Eagle). Twelve times heavier than a red-tailed hawk, this pterosaur is among the largest flying reptiles known with the Quetzalcoatlus and could measure up to 6 feet tall. Like Pterodactyl, Pteranodon had no feathers and its appearance was strictly reptilian.

The long crest of Pteranodon

Aside from its size, the most distinctive feature of Pteranodon is its backward pointing one-foot long crest. Its function remains mysterious, but paleontologists speculate that it served as a flying rudder or was a sexually selective trait (Pteranodon males with the largest and most elaborate ridge were more attractive to females). Some even argue that it could play the role of thermal regulator. Another possibility is that this long ridge allowed him to counterbalance the weight of his beak which was even longer. But the most promising and most likely theory is that the ridge served as a stabilizer during gliding. It is also believed that the ridge of this pterosaur was a sexual dimorphism: that of the males was much larger than that of the females.

A great carnivore

Pteranodon was carnivorous and ate fish, molluscs, crabs, insects and carcasses of dinosaurs and other animals. Like the Quetzalcoatlus, its beak was completely toothless and much like that of the pelicans. Most researchers believe that this pterosaur was primarily a glider although it still had to flap its wings from time to time. It had to launch itself from cliffs or similar high altitude places. There is also the possibility that Pteranodon rarely flew and spent much of its time hunting on the ground like raptors and tyrannosaurs.

Fossil discovery

This flying reptile was discovered by the legendary paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh in 1870 and is the first pterosaur found outside Europe. Marsh described it and officially gave it its name in 1876: "Pteranodon" means "toothless wing".

Star of cinema and television

Despite the strange appearance of Pteranodon, this pterosaur is much more popular than Pterodactyl for inclusion in dinosaur television movies and documentaries.

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