Microscopic scratches on fossil teeth are forcing paleontologists to rethink diets of pterosaurs. (Nature)
Use our fun activity to build your own pterosaur. (Yes, our lovely Dimorphodon illustration is out-of-date. Use the one below.)
Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.
- New fossil research sheds light on the diets of pterosaurs. What are pterosaurs? Read through our great activity for some help.
- Pterosaurs are an extinct group of flying reptiles that flourished during most of the Mesozoic Era, between 220 million to 65 million years ago. The most famous species of pterosaurs are probably the pterodactyls. (Take a look at a young pterodactyl flapling here.)
- There are no living descendants of pterosaurs.
- Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to evolve independently powered flight. Their wings were a membrane of muscle and skin stretching from their ankles to their extremely elongated fourth finger. (Learn more about pterosaur flight here.) In addition to flight, pterosaurs could also waddle around on the ground (behold this gif) and even swim (learn more about that here).
- All pterosaurs had light, hollow bones and most had a mouthful of needle-like teeth. Many had big crests on their heads and were covered in hair-like filaments called pycnofibers. (Read about pycnofibers here.)
- Pterosaurs included the largest flying animals to have ever lived. The wingspans of the smallest pterosaurs were about 250 millimeters (10 inches), while the largest spanned about 11 meters (36 feet).
- Pterosaurs were not “flying dinosaurs.” Dinosaurs and pterosaurs are separated by millions of years of evolutionary history. As one science writer says, “Calling a pterosaur a dinosaur is an error of the same order of magnitude as saying that our species is a marsupial.” (We’re mammals, FYI.)
- There were avian dinosaurs sharing the skies with pterosaurs, by the way. You may know them as “birds.”
- What do scientists think pterosaurs ate?
- A lot. Pterosaurs were mostly carnivores and scavengers, and had appropriately varied diets.
- Paleontologists long thought pterosaurs were primarily piscivores—meaning, they mostly ate fish. In addition to fish, evidence suggests pterosaurs also ate:
- crabs, clams, and other shellfish
- terrestrial dinosaurs (reptiles)
- other pterosaurs
- avian dinosaurs (birds)
- Not a part of the study, but at least one pterosaur, Pterodaustro, was probably a filter-feeder that used its specialized “tooth comb” to consume shellfish, plankton, and algae.
- How did scientists conduct the new research?
- dental exams. Researchers analyzed 11 pterosaur tooth fossils using infinite focus microscopes to create 3D images of tooth wear. Microscopic scratches and chips create tell-tale surface textures that vary according to an animal’s diet—scratches from shellfish may be different from scratches caused by bones, for instance.
- comparisons to their cousins. Researchers compared the wear patterns on pterosaur teeth to wear patterns on omnivores such as bats, lizards, and crocodilians.
- “This is a great example of how a combination of cutting-edge techniques and careful comparisons to modern species can help us understand how long-extinct animals behaved,” says one expert.
Nature: Tooth scratches reveal new clues to pterosaur diets
Nat Geo: Build a Pterosaur
Nat Geo: Flapling Fossil
Slate: Pterosaurs Were Even More Awesome Than Dinosaurs
Mark Witton: Pterosaurs
Wikipedia good article: Pterosaur