Published: October 26, 2018

Meet the Pterosaur Flock

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Neither dinosaurs nor birds, these flying reptiles took to the skies during the Jurassic and Cretaceous. See true-to-life models suspended overhead.

Looking up at the underside of a pterosaur model suspended from the ceiling in the museum's main hall. Skylights and a round light fixture, along with neoclassical architectural details, are visible.

Though you might’ve grown up calling these creatures pterodactyls, that’s the name for just one genus called Pterodactylus. We use “pterosaur” to ptalk—er, talk—about all genera of these extinct flying reptiles, which ranged from sparrow-sized to over 30 feet in wingspan.

In May 2018, we welcomed a flock of 13 scientifically accurate pterosaur models to our main hall. The three different species are based on what we know from fossils and represent a range of sizes and time periods.

Rhamphorhynchus

The smallest of the bunch is no less fierce: you’ll recognize Rhamphorhynchus from its razor-sharp teeth. That distinctive grin inspired the name Rhamphorhynchus (ram-foh-RINK-us), which means “beak snout.” This hawk-sized pterosaur, the oldest that you’ll see suspended overhead, hails from the Late Jurassic, about 160 million years ago.

Collectors first unearthed its fossils in Germany in 1825, briefly mistaking it for a bird before the teeth pointed them in a different direction. The teeth-plus-beak combination suggests that Rhamphorhynchus likely dined on marine animals, including fish and cephalopods. 

Another key feature? Some Rhamphorhynchus had a diamond-shaped tail embellishment. But this was more than decoration—it may have helped with flight stabilization, similar to a kite. Because this was a soft-tissue feature, it's not always preserved in fossils, but you can see it on our flying models.

Pteranodon

Spot two Pteranodon models with 18-foot wingspans as you walk up the stairs toward the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet. Pteranodon (teh-RAN-oh-don) was common in the Late Cretaceous in North America; picture them cruising around Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota! Unlike Rhamphorhynchus, Pteranodon lacked teeth, giving them a name that means they have wings but are toothless.

Pterosaur wings were similar in form and function to the wings of bats and birds. In all three groups of flying vertebrates—reptiles, mammals, and birds—their wings evolved for the fluid dynamics of flying.

Quetzalcoatlus

Now for the biggest of the big. Quetzalcoatlus (ket-zal-co-AHT-lus) is a giant pterosaur from Texas, with wings that stretch 35 feet across. You’ll spot one soaring over Stanley Field Hall near Máximo the titanosaur, and a second seated near the entrance of Evolving Planet—it’s about as tall as a giraffe.

Quetzalcoatlus is not only the biggest of our three pterosaur species on display, but it’s also the latest in time. These flying giants likely coexisted with T. rex at the very end of the Cretaceous, about 67 million years ago. Along with non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs went extinct during the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.  

 If you’re surprised that something this huge could take flight, you’re not alone. Quetzalcoatlus is probably the limit of how big an animal can be and still fly: when you consider even bigger individuals, the muscles needed to power flight would soon get too heavy to lift the animal, even with larger wings. 

Though scientists have differing views on how Quetzalcoatlus became airborne—it might’ve taken a couple of leaps to get going or used all four limbs to launch itself—most agree that it was indeed capable of powered flight and not just gliding. 

See if you can spot all 13 pterosaurs and ID the three different species next time you visit the Field.