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Dinosaur Guy, why are you making a post about pterosaurs in a segment titled ‘Dinosaurs Over The Years’? You do know that pterosaurs were not dinosaurs, right? If you don’t than you are a disgrace to the paleontology fan community and should be exiled and mocked for your ignorance.
Yes, I know that. what do you want me to do? Change the name to ‘Pterosaurs Over The Years’? How about ‘Prehistoric Animals That May Or May Not Include Dinosaurs Over The Years’?
That sounds good. Yes, do that!
My blog, my rules. ‘Dinosaurs Over The Years’ still sounds better, and i’m not changing it for one post.
That being said, pterosaurs still aren’t and never have been dinosaurs.
Anyway, let’s begin.
Pterosaurs were among the first prehistoric creatures to be discovered by modern science, yet to this day they still seem to stump us. It seems like almost daily we have to change how we look at these incredible yet weird looking creatures. However, things must have been really confusing for the scientists who first discovered and classified them.
When pterosaurs were first discovered, scientists had no idea what to think of them. Imagine yourself as a scientist from the 1700’s with no knowledge of prehistoric earth and suddenly you have to classify what this is.
You know of no animal today or from the past that looks anything like it, yet here it is in front of you? How would you react?
Because of this, pterosaurs were given some weird reconstructions in the early days. One of the first and prevailing theories of the time was that pterosaurs were flying mammals, similar to bats (I can see how they came to that conclusion, seeing how a bat’s wing membrane is the only thing similar pterosaurs had to any known animal at the time).
This sketch here is one of the first reconstructions of Pterodactylus, the first pterosaur discovered. There are some obvious problems, like how the tips of the wing bones attach to the legs making the wing structure look like that of a flying squirrel instead of a bat (heck, some of the early theories even suggested the wing bones were actually flippers and pterosaurs lived in the water). But besides that, it’s not a half bad attempt in reconstructing a creature with literally no background information. At first I was surprised it included fur, since I thought that feature was only discovered much later, but I remembered that this reconstruction depicted the creature as a mammal (note the external genitalia, a feature unique to mammals).
The mammalian depictions continued to remain popular, as seen in this infamous sketch shown above. It not only depicts pterosaurs as mammals, but more specifically marsupials. Why marsupials? Because these creatures are from ancient times, and marsupials are the most ancient of mammals.
See, they really had little to work with back then. Forgive them for these outlandish depictions.
It was, however, later determined that these creatures were in fact reptiles. This theory was originally met with some questioning, however. Reptiles are by nature are ectothermic (or what we used to call cold blooded), and presumably would not have the metabolism needed for sustained flight. It was later speculated that pterosaurs were able to fly, but nowhere near as strong as birds could, and that this would keep their size relatively small, with no pterosaurs exceeding the size of modern flying birds. For a while, this hypothesis went unchallenged, and the look of these creatures slowly went from flying possums to leathery dragons.
However, the idea that pterosaurs never got any bigger than modern birds was eventually thwarted by the discovery of Pteranodon.
With a wingspan of over 16 feet, Pteranodon was much larger than any known pterosaur at the time and held that title for many decades. It became instantly famous, and Pteranodon is often the first creature people think about when talking about pterosaurs.
The image of these creatures as great flying dragons was now getting more and more popular, and many media depictions of these creatures portrayed them as reptilian flying monsters with leathery or scaly skin. These images have even persisted to this day.
However, this scaly flying lizard image was put to the test with the discovery of Sordes in 1971.
Sordes, whose name literally means ‘hairy’, is the first pterosaur found with evidence of some sort of furry covering. It was thought to be different than fur or feathers, so the covering was given the name ‘pycnofibres’. So this confirms that pterosaurs weren’t leathery, but instead covered in a furry coat.
This fuzz basically confirms the idea that pterosaurs were warm blooded, which means they were quite active flyers. But the 70’s would provide yet another big story for pterosaur science with the discovery of Quetzalcoatlus.
If there was nay pterosaur that remined people of a flying dragon, it was this one. Quetzalcoatlus was a monster, with a wingspan of up to 30 feet! Because of this, and the initial fragmentary nature of the specimen, older reconstructions of the creature made it look quite monstrous.
It was initially thought to be a carrion eater, and images of it as some demonesque vulture dragon were common in it’s early reconstructions. Later illustrations wouldn’t be quite as horrifying, but they still weren’t exactly on the spot.
The image above shows how people for the longest time thought about these creatures, with normal pterosaur proportions only bigger. However, Quetzalcoatlus was much weirder than anyone could imagine. With new material to work with as well as studying related species, it would seem that Quetzalcoatlus and it’s kin had unusually big heads.
In fact, their entire body structure was wonky. It almost didn’t seem aerodynamic….
I know a lot of scientists recently have proposed that Quetzalcoatlus and it’s kin may have actually spent most of their time on the land hunting for food, and some may have never even flown at all. If this was the case, pterosaurs may have been on the verge of turning into land animals (if it weren’t for that dang asteroid). Now, I have nothing to argue against this claim, and just as many scientists still insist that Quetzalcoatlus was still a strong flier, so I guess it depends on who you ask. Personally, I like the idea that Quetzalcoaltus spent most of it’s time on land, but I still like to think this magnificent creature could have flown as well. But like I said, I’m not expert.
As you can see, pterosaurs are incredibly strange and diverse creatures. You can see why it took so long for us to actually figure out what they were. And this really is just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists still argue about where pterosaurs fit on the animal family tree, how their wing membrane and wing bones fit together, their flying ability among many other things. I won’t really get into that because I’m not a pterosaur expert, but I’ll just let you know that things may be a little different depending on who you ask.
Especially if you’re David Peters.
Next time I do a new segment called Dino’s That Need More Love, showing off dinosaurs that need to be represented more in popular media. The focus of the segment this time will be Centrosaurus.