Retro vs Modern #18: Pterodactylus antiquus

Pterodactylus antiquus was the first pterosaur ever discovered, and in popular culture the name “pterodactyl” has become commonly associated with the group as a whole.


1800s

The first known Pterodactlyus specimen came from southeast Germany, and was described (although not yet named) in the 1780s. The modern concept of extinction hadn’t yet been established, so at the time unknown fossil species were generally assumed to still exist alive somewhere in remote regions of the world. Initially it was unclear what type of animal this specimen represented, and it was interpreted as being aquatic because the oceans seemed like the best place for such a strange creature to hide undiscovered.

In 1800 it was recognized as instead being a flying animal, with naturalist Johann Hermann creating both the first known life restoration of a pterosaur and one of the first known examples of scientific paleoart in general. He depicted it as a bat-like mammal with extensive wing membranes, external ears, and a covering of fur, and made two different sketches of this interpretation. The first shows an odd rounded wing shape with the wing finger seeming to form a stiff “hoop” around to the ankles, but the second version has some interesting additions – showing an understanding of the wing finger being straightened and stretching out the membrane, and adding a very large colugo-like propatagium between the neck and the wrist.

In light of our modern understanding of pterosaurs this was an incredibly good attempt at a reconstruction, despite the total lack of soft tissue impressions and the mistaken mammal classification.

The name Pterodactylus was established for this animal by the late 1810s, and while it was correctly identified as a flying reptile by some early paleontologists, others also saw it as being more mammal-like or bird-like.

In this pre-Darwinian time there was no modern concept of evolutionary relationships, and pterosaurs were instead thought to be a type of bat positioned inbetween mammals and birds in the “chain of being“. This “bat model” became influential on the early study of pterosaurs, and some paleontologists depicted highly mammalian versions even as late as the 1940s.

(The aquatic interpretation also stuck around as a competing idea until at least 1930, with  Pterodactylus‘ wings restored as huge penguin-like flippers.)


1850s-1970s

By the mid-19th century the reptile interpretation had become standard but the bat influence remained, with pterosaurs commonly assumed to have been furry, warm-blooded, and quadrupedal and clumsy on the ground. Fossil evidence of hair-like fuzz had even been found on a specimen of Scaphognathus in the 1830s, but this was later disputed and was only confirmed as being real almost two centuries later.

British paleontologist Richard Owen disagreed with the bat model for pterosaurs, considering them to be scaly sluggish cold-blooded gliders, and in the 1850s oversaw the creation of the heavily-scaled and oddly goose-like Crystal Palace Pterodactylus statues – one of their first major portrayals to the general public, and influential in the popular perception of these animals at the time.

But even into the start of the 20th century some paleontologists were still arguing for active warm-blooded pterosaurs, with the first popular book on the group in 1901 suggesting they were closely related to birds. German paleontologists continued to interpret pterosaurs this way into the 1930s, but in contrast English and American scientists largely lost interest in these animals over subsequent decades – and depictions of pterosaurs went the same way as non-avian dinosaurs during this period, descending into awkward evolutionary failures that could barely even fly, shown as scaly-skinned or naked, and hanging upside-down from trees and cliffsides like giant wrinkly bats.


2020s

The discovery of definite hair-like structures (known as pycnofibers) on Sordes brought pterosaurs into their own renaissance in the 1970s, and among a flood of new discoveries they were reinterpreted as active warm-blooded bird-like animals. Reconstructions sometimes went a bit too bird-like, though, attempting to distance themselves from the older saggy-repto-bat portrayals, with forced bipedal postures and much more slender wing membranes attaching to the waist.

But early 21st century studies into biomechanics, soft-tissue remains, and trackways confirmed that some elements of the bat model had actually been right the whole time. Pterosaurs had flight membranes attached to their hind limbs and were quadrupedal when on the ground – but instead of being awkward bat-like sprawlers they were actually competent walkers and runners with an energy-efficient upright posture.

We now know Pterodactylus lived during the Late Jurassic, about 150-148 million, at a time when the region of southern Germany was part of an island archipelago in a shallow tropical sea. Fragmentary remains are also known from elsewhere in Europe and in Africa, suggesting this genus had a fairly wide range.

It was a fairly small pterosaur, with the largest adults having am estimated wingspan of around 1m (3’3″), and had long straight jaws lined with numerous pointed teeth. Most known specimens are juveniles, but fossils of larger adults preserve evidence of a soft tissue crest with a backwards-pointing “lappet”, and long mane-like pycnofibers on the back of the neck.

Like other pterosaurs it was fuzzy and warm-blooded, and it had hollow bird-like bones and air sacs lightening its body. Its wings were highly complex with layers of strengthening fibers and muscles that allowed the flight surface shape to be precisely controlled, and when walking on the ground it could fold up its wing fingers and stow the membranes well out of the way of its limbs.

It was probably a generalist carnivore, feeding mostly on small prey like invertebrates, and the shape of the sclerotic rings in its eye sockets suggest it was mainly active during the daytime.

Leptostomia

Leptostomia begaaensis here is a recently-discovered pterosaur that lived during the mid-Cretaceous period, around 100 million years ago.

Its fossil remains were found in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco – ancient river deposits famous for yielding some of the newer specimens of the bizarre aquatic dinosaur Spinosaurus – and consist of just a couple of small pieces of jaw bones.

But those fragments are rather weird for a pterosaur.

While it’s hard to tell for certain from such meagre remains, Leptostomia might have been part of the azhdarchoid lineage, related to both the elaborately-crested tapejarids and the terrestrial-stalking giants like Quetzalcoatlus. And if it was indded an azhdarchoid it was an especially tiny one, possibly the smallest known member of the whole group. Based on the proportions of its relatives it would have stood just 30cm tall (1′) with a wingspan of 60-70cm (2′-2’4″), roughly comparable in size to a modern pigeon.

And it had an incredibly long beak that tapered to a thin delicate tip, resembling the beaks of modern probe-feeding shorebirds more than any other known pterosaur. It may have been specialized for the same sort of ecological niche, poking around in mud and shallow water for small invertebrates and snapping them up, possibly detecting its hidden prey using super-sensitive nerve endings in the tip of its beak.

Weird Heads Month #01

It’s been a whole four years since Weird Backs Month, so we’re long overdue for a companion series:

Weird Heads Month!

Ever since heads first evolved as a defined body part, over 500 million years ago, evolution has been experimenting with them. There are many modern examples of animals that have modified parts of their heads and faces in a variety of strange-looking ways – elephants, deer, narwhals, hornbills, sawfish, bats, stalk-eyed flies, hammerheads, barreleyes, and star-nosed moles, to name only a few – and species in the fossil record were just as diverse and weird.

So let’s start off with…


Weird Heads Month #01: Wacky Flying Headgear

One of the most immediately recognizable examples of extinct animals with strange head structures are the pterosaurs, almost always depicted in pop culture with a large Pteranodon-like head crest.

But that wasn’t anywhere near as weird as pterosaur crests got.

Nyctosaurus gracilis here had an absolutely ridiculous elaborate crest, sporting an enormous antler-like structure on the back of its skull that grew to lengths longer than its own body.

Living around the Western Interior Seaway of the Midwestern United States during the Late Cretaceous, around 85 million years ago, it was a fairly small pterosaur standing about 40cm tall without the crest (1’4″) and with a 2m wingspan (6’6″). Its wings were long and narrow, and had completely lost the three small clawed fingers seen on other pterosaurs, suggesting it may have been less capable of moving around on the ground. It’s thought to have been a specialized soaring flier that spent most of its life on the wing at sea, much like a modern albatross.

Made up of two long thin spars arising from a common base, Nyctosaurus‘ crest has sometimes been reconstructed with a large sail-like membrane of skin – but since there’s no evidence at all of soft-tissue attachment on the bones, this seems unlikely. Juveniles were crestless, with only fully mature adults developing their spectacular headgear, so it was probably some sort of display structure.

It’s also not clear whether there was any sexual dimorphism in Nyctosaurus, since well-preserved skulls with intact crests are incredibly rare. But as with most other crested pterosaurs it’s likely that all mature individuals had crests, just with a difference in size and shape between sexes.

Cryodrakon

Fragmentary fossils of huge azhdarchid pterosaurs have been found in Canada since the early 1970s, and for a long time they were assumed to belong to Quetzalcoatlus. But more recently these remains were re-examined and shown to actually represent an entirely new genus and species.

Cryodrakon boreas – an excellent name meaning “icy dragon of the north wind” – was officially described in late 2019. With a wingspan of around 10m (32’10”) it was similar in size to its close relative Quetzalcoatlus, but it dates to about 10 million years earlier making it one of the oldest azhdarchids ever found in North America.

It lived about 76 million years ago in Alberta, with its fossils coming from the Dinosaur Park Formation, an area that at the time would have been a coastal plain near the northern parts of the Western Interior Seaway. Despite Alberta being located somewhat closer to the Arctic Circle than it is today, the climate was warm-temperate and temperatures rarely dipped below freezing, with short nights in the summers and only a few hours of daylight in the winters.

Like other azhdarchids Cryodrakon would have spent a lot of its time on all fours on the ground. While moving like that it would have been almost 5m tall (16’5″), similar in size to a modern giraffe, stalking smaller animals and eating whatever it could catch and fit into its mouth.

Ferrodraco

Fossils of pterosaurs are already rather rare due to their fragile hollow bones — and they’re especially scarce in Australia, with only a handful of fragments known.

But recently a more complete one was discovered in central-western Queensland.

Ferrodraco lentoni (“Lenton‘s iron dragon”) is named after the ironstone that the fossils were found in, and while it’s known only from a partial skull, some pieces of its neck and wings, and various teeth, it’s still by far the best pterosaur specimen ever found in Australia.

Living during the mid-Cretaceous, somewhere between 94 and 90 million years ago, it had a 4m wingspan (~13′) and was also one of the very last of its kind. It was a member of the ornithocheirids, a group characterized by rounded crests at the tips of their long toothy jaws, which were previously thought to have all gone extinct by that time.

Many of Australia’s Cretaceous animals were close relatives of those found in South America, due to an earlier land connection via Antarctica, but surprisingly Ferrodraco wasn’t particularly closely related to any South American ornithocheirids. Instead it seems to have been part of a lineage known from halfway around the world in Europe, suggesting that these pterosaurs were capable of crossing long distances over oceans to disperse between continents.

Island Weirdness #09 – Hatzegopteryx thambema

There are no big theropod dinosaurs known from the end-Cretaceous Hațeg Island ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any large carnivores at all.

The apex predator niche here instead seems to have been occupied by Hatzegopteryx, an enormous azhdarchid pterosaur. Standing up to 4.5m tall (14’9″) when on the ground, and with an estimated wingspan rivaling Quetzalcoatlus (~11m / 36′), it was one of the largest animals to ever fly – although like other azhdarchids it probably actually spent most of its time stalking around quadrupedally on the ground eating whatever it could fit into its mouth.

Its neck was shorter and chunkier than most other azhdarchids, and its skull was wider and more massively built. The walls of its hollow bones were also unusually thick and reinforced for a pterosaur, so much so that they were initially mistaken for those of a theropod instead.

Fossils of Hatzegopteryx are very fragmentary, however, so its full appearance and the specifics of its diet are still uncertain. But it would have probably been able to tackle much larger prey than other azhdarchids, possibly capable of using its sturdy beak to bludgeon or stab anything too big to pick up and swallow whole in a similar manner to modern marabou storks.

Cycnorhamphus

Cycnorhamphus suevicus, a pterosaur from the Late Jurassic of Germany and France (~150-145 mya).

It had a wingspan of about 1.3m (4′3″), and was originally thought to look similar to Pterodactylus with long straight jaws – but a well-preserved fossil nicknamed “the Painten Pelican” revealed its snout was actually much more oddly-shaped.

“Painten Pelican mount” by Mike Steele | CC BY 2.0 | cropped from original

It turns out Cycnorhamphus’s jaws arced outwards, creating an opening that seems to have become more pronounced as individuals reached adulthood. Soft-tissue impressions in the fossil also show some sort of stiff “flanges” on each side of the upper jaws, covering the gap and giving it a sort of bulldog-like appearance.

The function of this jaw structure is unknown for certain, but it’s been speculated to be a specialization for cracking open hard-shelled prey like molluscs.

Ikrandraco

Ikrandraco avatar, a pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous of China (~120 mya). Although it was close relative of the well-known Pteranodon it was much smaller, with an estimated wingspan of around 1.5m (4′11) – similar in size to a large seagull.

Its name was based on the fictional ikran creatures from the 2009 movie Avatar, in reference to similarity of the the large crests on their lower jaws.

Ikrandraco’s skull (scale bar = 5cm)
[image source]

A hook-shaped projection at the back of the crest may have been an attachment point for a pelican-like throat pouch. The paleontologists who described Ikrandraco also suggested that its crest could have been used for skim-feeding, although this is a highly controversial idea among pterosaur specialists.