Pterodactyl (Pterosaur)

“Aw yeah, look who’s Pevolving! This Pguy!”

Despite what you learned in your very first dinosaur book, the Pterodactyl was not a dinosaur. Dinosaurs (at the time of this writing, at least) are defined as land-dwelling, diapsid reptiles that descended from the archosaurs. While this definition is certainly annoying (i.e. in order to get a grip on the whole affair one is now forced to look up “diapsid” and also “archosaur” and thus one quickly starts imagining other things one could be doing with one’s time), it is the accepted definition of dinosaur. Since Pterodactyls flew, they were not “land-dwelling” and are therefore not considered dinosaurs, even though they were large reptiles who lived with the dinosaurs and looked like the dinosaurs and played racquetball with the dinosaurs on Wednesdays.

Plus, Pterodactyls walked with a certain semi-upright stance that differed slightly from the stances of “real” dinosaurs. Paleontologists, it turns out, are total sticklers.

Put a metatarsal on the metacarpal table and get ready for an earful.

The second, more immediate problem with putting the Pterodactyl in dinosaur books is that there is (was) no such animal.  The term “Ptero-dactyle” was first coined by French Naturalist/Zoologist Georges Cuvier in 1809. Around that time, science had been turning up some bizarre fossils with beaks and large, wing-like structures. For some reason, to Cuvier, a hyphenated name beginning with a silent P seemed like an awesome way to describe these organisms. Eventually, “Ptero-dactyle” became “Pterodactylus,” and every fossil with wings that looked like a dinosaur was tossed into the old metaphorical Pterodactylus bucket in the corner. However, the term Pterodactyl stuck in the vernacular because the public, for one, had had enough already and just wanted to see the exhibit and go home.

Eventually, science got its act together and renamed the entire group of flying reptiles “Pterosaurs” (from the Greek meaning “wing lizard”). Each was then given a proper scientific name. Today, we recognize only two Pterodactylus species: Pterodactylus antiquus and Pterodactylus longicollum. And just FYI, knowing this simple fact officially makes you a nerd.

Long story short, there is no “Pterodactyl.”

Also, this never happened. Modern paleontology is chock full of disappointments.

Now that we’ve got all that sorted out, what you really need to know about Pterosaurs is that they were an order of terrifying, flying, carnivorous reptiles that dominated the skies of the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. The smallest was about the size of a sparrow, while the largest, Quetzalcoatlus, had a tip-to-tip wingspan that reached up to 40 feet, which is equivalent to that of your average fighter jet. Quetzalcoatlus wasn’t just the biggest of the Pterosaurs. And it wasn’t just the biggest thing to ever poop on a T. Rex.

“Whoa! Not cool, man.”

Quetzalcoatlus, according to scientific consensus, was the largest animal that ever flew. Who needs Pterodactyls anyway?

It’s probably also important to know that present-day birds share many flying-specific features with Quetzalcoatlus and Pterosaurs in general (relatively small bodies/hollow bones for lightness and large brains/good eyesight for, you know, not crashing) but present-day birds did not evolve from Pterosaurs. Of this much, science is very close to absolutely sure. It’s rare when you get certitude like that from scientists, the very same people who will tell you that a particularly good movie or book or Super Bowl party is “consistent with being enjoyable.” So revel in this almost-truth: Pterosaurs did not evolve into birds. Like everything else that ended in –saur, they were wiped out by an asteroid (or a super volcano, or something). Birds gradually evolved from the small, land-based animals that survived the event.

The fact that Pterosaurs and pigeons have similar adaptations for flight is a nice example of what scientists call convergent evolution: Two unrelated animals evolving similar features to tackle a certain problem (flight), without once getting on conference call to make sure “everyone was on the same page.” Perhaps it makes sense that some challenges in nature yield predictable results, regardless of time or place. After all, one probably wouldn’t be surprised to find a bank on a civilized alien planet that has some sort of transparent-yet-high-security wall between its tellers and its customers. That alien bank, if its still around, no doubt also learned that giving volatile, adjustable-rate mortgages to their alien customers  with insufficient income to support their monthly payments was just a terrible idea. Convergent evolution at work.

Okay. Anyway. Back to Pterosaurs. In summary, a flying lizard as big as an airplane is undeniably cool. Unless you just got your T. rex washed.



19 responses to “Pterodactyl (Pterosaur)

  1. Sir Pilkington Smythe


    Great post chaps!
    Not perchance working on a follow up dinosaur book are you? I was doing the same… might need a rethink! Your first was too bloody funny by far…
    Anyhow you’ve irked my pedantry bone again!
    The birds evolved from dinosaurs, in fact they are dinosaurs, that afore mentioned big annoying rock you talked about wiped out all the “non-avian dinosaurs”. The birds are just a group of theropod dinosaurs, the same group that T Rex belonged to. Even imbeciles like the Kakapo;

    Anyhoo, apologies for the pedantry and do keep ’em coming!
    Sir P-Sx

  2. I miss you kids. Pls work harder.
    Love from Australia

  3. nice work!

    I just looked up a Quetzalcoatlus to see what they look like. One stitched together word…badass!

    They are all like f*ckin chek out this wing span and sh$t I could totally tapdance on your late 70’s model corolla if I wanted to.

    I also love the idea that there’s probably an alien wall street-esk crash happening somewhere else in the universe. Lot’s of little fat headed Roswell looking aliens leaving their office with boxes.

  4. When Pterodactyl and I had that argument, and I said I hope he had never been born, I didn’t actually mean it. D:

  5. oh my GOD I’ve been checking this site for updates for about 6 months!! Glad your back, please keep it up I love this site!

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  7. Welcome back — now I have something to look forward to besides Mistress Matisse

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  9. iguanas look like dinosaurs and thats why i have some iguanas as pets

  10. Non-Avian Human

    Yeah, gotta reiterate an earlier poster — birds evolved long before the extinction of the pterosaurs (and non-avian dinosaurs). It’s pretty much part of that rare scientific certainty now: During the mid-to-late Jurassic (between 175-160 million years ago — about 100 million years before the K-T Extinction even), some small little raptory theropods with nice fluffy feathers and a need to get vertical did just that. And likely lots of varieties took wing until the ancestors of today’s birdies really got going.

    By the end of the Cretaceous, only large species of pterosaur remained — some speculate birds were responsible for sending the smaller species to extinction — although this are disagreements. What is certain is that flying dinos — birds — have been around much longer than your post states!

  11. Words are words because people speak them. Given the question, “Which came first, the dictionary or the word?”, the answer is unequivocally, “the word.” Even if a dictionary puts out an edition with a certain word, and then the public chooses to use a slightly different pronunciation of that word, or if the en masse public give the word an entirely different meaning, it remains the dictionary’s place to report the usage of that word, NOT to dictate the usage of that word. So it is the dictionary that must change, not the people. First of all, because that is what the dictionary was intended for to begin with, and second, because it is exponentially easier to edit a book than it is to change the will of millions of people. There may be no living pterdactyls, but English is a living breathing language in which the term pteradactyl is completely accepted, understood, and globally used by all. If we were to exclude every word that can be considered “vernacular”, then we would have to amputate half of the current vocabulary of your average English speaker. Truly, there are hundreds of thousands of words in the dictionary that no one ever uses, while pteradactyl enjoys a high frequency of use in relevant conversations, so… I would say that it is now the job of the writers of dictionaries to figure out what people mean when they use the term pteradactyl and write up that definition for clarification. If it turns out that it is not a scientific term, well then so what? Dog isn’t a scientific term either. We don’t require our words to adhere to scientific genus and family etc…

    Pteradactyl is a word, sir. Looks like you figured out which two pterosaurs we might be talking about. I feel quite comfortable calling either Pterodactylus antiquus or Pterodactylus longicollum a pteradactyl. As does pretty much everybody, so I think the paleontologists should loosen up and go ahead and put the term BACK in the book, where it was when I was a kid.

  12. I would say that it is now the job of the writers of dictionaries to figure out what people mean when they use the term pteradactyl and write up that definition for clarification.

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  16. Dude, u funny.

  17. Thank you for this post. It is awesome~

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