Pterosaurs—are you feeling it?

The world used to be so awesome and scary: Some quetzalcoatlus strut their way into my dreams.
The world used to be so awesome and scary: Some quetzalcoatlus strut their way into my dreams.Courtesy Matt Witton and Darren Naish
I’m all about pterosaurs. You should be too, really. I mean, eventually everyone will be into pterosaurs, and won’t it feel good to have boarded that train before it was cool? You’ll have, as it were, the best seat. You can be like, “Eh, whatever. I was into rhamphorynchoids when all y’all were poopin’ your pants over diplodocus.”

Pterodactyloids, obviously, are cooler than rhamphorynchoids, but you’re going to want to say “rhamphorynchoid” to prove what smoking hot Schmidt you really are.

Why are pterosaurs so cool? You probably already know, deep down, but please allow me to reemphasize, for my own sake.

Pterosaurs, as you all know, are extinct flying reptiles, like pterodactyls and pteranodons, right? They lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, and for about the same length of time as the dinosaurs (for about one hundred fifty million years), but they weren’t dinosaurs at all—if you can fly, you’re not a dinosaur, and pterosaurs definitely flew. Towards the end of the cretaceous, pterosaurs shared the skies with birds, but they weren’t birds either—pterosaurs evolved for flight long-before birds and independent of them (they were the first vertebrates to be able to fly). So, for millions upon millions of years, pterosaurs were the undisputed masters of the skies, and they evolved into all sorts of crazy forms. We can all picture pteranodons—pterosaurs twice the size of condors, with leathery wings and the big, pointy head crest—but pterosaurs came in a lot more flavors than that. Some were the size of pigeons, while others (like the SMM’s quetzalcoatlus) had wingspans easily exceeding thirty feet. Some, it seems, had adapted to live like flamingos do today, by scooping up mouthfuls of water, and filtering out food through more than a thousand straight, bristle-like teeth. Wild.

New research shows that some pterosaurs may also have specialized in hunting on the ground.

Initial reaction: Hey, you know what else specializes in hunting on the ground? Shrews. And you know what aren’t very cool? Shrews. Well, shrews are kind of cool, come to think of it, but they aren’t particularly impressive. So, an initial reaction follow-up: I don’t care about this. Herons and storks walk around and eat things out of the shallows. There’s nothing to be surprised about here.

Wrong. This stuff is rad. See, there probably were pterosaurs that hunted in shallow water like cranes, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here—these pterosaurs strolled around on the prairies looking for food. And, here’s the kicker, these aren’t little eagle-sized pterosaurs, these are the “azhdarchids,” the biggest of the big pterosaurs, with thirty-plus foot wingspans.

Hatzegopteryx: Keeping it real. Unfortunately, there were no people around when the azhdarchids were flying, but we provide good scale.
Hatzegopteryx: Keeping it real. Unfortunately, there were no people around when the azhdarchids were flying, but we provide good scale.Courtesy Mark P. Witton
Think about an animal the size of a plane landing in a field to chase down a fox-sized dinosaur, before snapping it up in a six-foot-long beak. Some of these pterosaurs would have been as tall as a giraffe. A flying, giraffe-sized, terrestrial predator. You have to admit, that’s super cool.

The prevailing theory (one still considered valid by many paleontologists) has been that these very large pterosaurs would have lived more like large seabirds do today—flying over lakes and oceans to grab fish from the water. This is probably a pretty accurate model for many pterosaurs, but further studies of azharchid skeletons and trackways (they left a lot of footprints around) indicate that their long limb bones, stiff necks, and relatively small, padded feet would have been well suited for stalking around on solid ground. Furthermore, about half of the azharchid fossils come from inland sediments (that is to say, places where there wasn’t a large body of water when the pterosaurs were alive).

I like this. I’m into this. Get on the boat with me. It’s called the S.S. Awesome, and we’re setting sail for the distant harbors of Hiptown.

UPDATE--One of the most recently discovered azhdarchids, the hatzegopteryx looks to be even bigger than the quetzalcoatlus, with a wingspan exceeding 40 feet. Also, it's head was almost two feet wide. That means it could have swallowed you whole, hotshot. I just thought people should know that.

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