New Golden Age for Pterosaurs, Flying Reptiles of the Dinosaur Era
Pterosaurs were the most magnificent fliers of all time. With wings of skin stretched over bone, they soared over the heads of dinosaurs below.
Their ranks included fuzzy little flappers the size of a bat andenormous soaring species with 33-foot (10-meter) wingspans that stood on the ground as tall as a giraffe.
Paleontologists have known about the existence of pterosaurs since the early days of fossil investigation, but researchers are just now getting to know these extinct fliers.
The reptiles are also gaining more attention from the general public. Pterosaurs are often put on exhibit as the “also rans” of the Mesozoic era, presented as window dressing in a world ruled by other, more famous creatures like Tyrannosaurus rex. But this weekend they will fly into the spotlight in the new American Museum of Natural Historyexhibit “Pterosaur: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.”
Now is the time of the pterosaur.
Pterosaurs thrived through the Mesozoic, leaving behind their bones in rocks dating to 228 to 66 million years ago, a time when the planet was populated by dinosaurs and other extravagant ancient reptiles.
The flying creatures weren’t dinosaurs, though they were related, having diverged from an older common ancestor to their own evolutionary line more than 245 million years ago.
Naturalists had no idea such animals had existed until the late 18th century. Then, sometime between 1767 and 1784, an unknown person discovered the exquisitely preserved skeleton of the first pterosaur known to science in a layer of 150-million-year-old limestone in Germany.
Italian naturalist Cosimo Collini, who described the fossil, thought that the reptile’s elongated fourth finger supported a paddle the creature used to propel itself through the seas. The idea wasn’t all that far-fetched: The little animal, named Pterodactylus, was found in stone that formed at the bottom of a lagoon and was filled with marine fossils.
But in 1801, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier realized that those “flippers” were really wings, like those of a bat. That ludicrously long fourth finger supported a membrane that pterosaurs used to take to the sky.
And while Pterodactylus was relatively small—the largest members of the species had only a four-foot (1.2-meter) wingspan—paleontologists were soon digging up stranger, much bigger forms such as the crested Pteranodon, a pterosaur from the Cretaceous period that soared over a vanished seaway on wings stretching 20 feet (6 meters) from tip to tip.
As a group, these animals are properly called pterosaurs. The “pterodactyl” name commonly used by the general public actually applies only to that first critter that Collini described.
Strangely, considering the initial excitement about the flying reptiles, paleontologists soon put pterosaurs aside. “After a lot of early interest, pterosaurs became unfashionable research subjects for much of the 20th century because, among other reasons, their fossils were super-rare and not very well understood at that time,” said University of Portsmouth, U.K., paleontologist and artist Mark Witton, who has contributed some of his lavish pterosaur illustrations to the new museum exhibit.
The flying reptiles were seen as “miserable, clumsy, and fragile animals which were little more than early attempts at flight and destined for extinction the moment other flying vertebrates, most notably birds, arrived on the scene,” Witton said.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, as the whole of paleontology was undergoing a revitalization, thanks to new technologies and evolutionary theories, that paleontologists returned to the study of pterosaurs. They soon realized that the reptiles were far stranger than they ever knew.
"It’s widely considered that the early 21st [century] is a new golden age of pterosaur research," Witton said, "with new ideas coming thicker and faster than ever before."