The genus Pteranodon is one of the most famous genera, both scientifically and socially, and was a genus of flying reptiles, not dinosaurs. The genus Pteranodon includes a large number of species, many of which are known only by partial body parts such as wing phalanges, beak or jaw portions .
This flying reptile lived about 75 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous. The name Pteranodon means “toothless wing”, and it was a large flying reptile with a very hard bony skull but without teeth, as is the case with today’s birds.
Today we bring you one of the most fascinating flying creatures known. In fact, the animal one imagines when talking about flying dinosaurs is none other than Pteranodon, but we must emphasize that it is not a dinosaur.
But could you tell how tall it was or what it ate or how it was able to fly? Don’t worry, that’s what we’re here for. Hold on, we’re taking off on the back of the king of the skies.
The family: pterosaur pteranodontide
Are we starting with complex terms? It seems that when we talk about the dinosaur family (or close to it, as it is the case) we are speaking in another language. Don’t worry, I’ll explain every term.
The first surname: pterosaur. The literal translation is “flying lizard”. They are the first group of vertebrates to fly through the air.
Second surname, pteranodontic. This term refers to a group of pterosaurs (especially large ones) that lived at the end of the Cretaceous period. This stage is the last one before a huge meteorite erased everything that had been and still is on the face of the Earth.
Before we go any further, there is a huge question to be asked:
What is the difference between pteranodons and pterodactyls?
Simply put, we could say that Pterodactyls (known scientifically as Pterodactylus) are the distant cousins of the Pteranodon. They are similar since both are amazing flying creatures, but the reality is that they have quite a few differences.
Let’s see it on a board.
|Where they lived||When they lived||Size|
|Pteranodon||North America||Cretaceous||On average, about 6 meters wing to wing|
|Pterodactylus||Europe and Africa||Jurassic||On average, about 2 meters wing to wing|
The Pteranodon has no teeth while the Pterodactyls do
As you can see, the name is similar, but the coincidences are few. Although the most striking is undoubtedly the size of our friend, who is six metres tall. Wow.
Was he a flying dinosaur or not?
Although it’s one of the most famous flying dinosaurs, the reality is that it wasn’t a dinosaur. Mind you, he did live with them for a long time, but they had nothing to do with each other.
Then, if it is not a flying dinosaur, what is the Pteranodon?
As I told you before, pterosaurs are sauropodic archosaurs. Since I imagine you’ve stayed the same, let’s dust off the books on naturals:
Quick lecture on the origin of dinosaurs: Who were sauropes?
We have to go back to the origins of origins. Specifically to the evolution of the first reptiles (come on, to the beginning of the whole thing). Reptiles manage to get out of the water and adapt to the land thanks to an egg: the amniotic egg.
This egg allows them to reproduce on earth because it reproduces the necessary conditions of humidity within itself. The amniots have just arrived in the world.
This is when the first major division emerges. The amniots evolve into two classes: the sauropids and the synapsids (for example, the Dimetrodon was a synapsid).
We follow the branch of the sauropods that will divide again until arriving at the Archosauria, from where three more lines come out: crocodiles, dinosaurs and pterosaurs.
Therefore, the pterosaurs were not dinosaurs, but relatives of the dinosaurs.
Let’s go now to the Pteranodon in particular.
- KINGDOM Animalia
- FILO Chordata
- Sauropside Class (here we are separated from the line the dinosaurs would follow)
- SUPERORDER: Archosauria
- ORDER Pterosauria
- SUBORDER Pterodactyloidea
- Ornithocheiroid SUPERFAMILY
- FAMILY Pteranodontidae
- GENDER Pteranodon
Pteranodon species: P.longiceps and P.sternbergi
Almost every time you join the words “species”, “dinosaurs” and “paleontology” there is a clash. Everyone calls things by a different name.
I’ll tell you.
Recognized as Pteranodon species there are only two: P. longiceps and P. sternbergi.
The truth is that there is not much difference between the two. A variation in the position of the ridge above their heads and some bones. However, P. sternbergi predates P. longiceps, and could be considered an ancestor of the latter.
Why are there problems in naming the species?
Confusion arises when a paleontologist disagrees with a classification made by another person and establishes a new one. Hence, although these two species have already been established, over time they have been named as follows.
- P. ingens.
- P. umbrosus.
- P. harpyia.
- P. occidentalis.
Since I don’t want to bore you with lots of names, we’ll leave it here.
The only important thing is that you have clear that if you ever hear the name of Pteranodon linked to another denomination other than the two recognized ones, the reason is the one we have just explained to you.
What does the name Pteranodon mean?
The name of this pterosaur literally means “toothless winged. And that’s because our flying friend was toothless.
So that you do not remain with the curiosity (we know each other) I also explain the meaning of the name of the Pterodactylus: “winged finger”.
Who discovered this pterosaur?
When you dust off the history of this pterosaur you will see again that when it came to naming the fossils each one was on its own. Fortunately, there are now bodies that regulate the entire nomenclature.
The first remains of Pteranodon were found by Othniel Charles Marsh (one of the great paleontologists of history) in 1870. They were the remains of a wing and a tooth (this one belonged to another animal, but Marsh believed it belonged to the same one).
A year later, he would name these fossils Pterodactytus oweni (as you can see, the confusion with pterodactyls comes from far away). However, that name had already been used so he would rename the fossils as: Pterodactylus occidentalis.
It would be the Marsh himself who would also provide the names Pterodactylus ingens and Pterodactlyus velox. In this case, he believed that they were different species because of the difference in size that existed.
Do you remember the Bone Wars?
No, dinosaurs didn’t throw bones at each other. Sometime, in other posts I have referred to this historical situation in the world of Paleontology.
The rivalry that existed between the two paleontologists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, was called the “War of the Bones”. Both challenged each other to see which one could find the most new species of dinosaurs.
Look at the extent to which the “pique” between Cope and Marsh led to the discovery of more than 140 species. That’s nothing.
The problem was that both used dishonest and illicit methods in some cases to get more fossils. There was no shortage of thefts, bribes, lies and various fights.
They also did not hesitate to try to misrepresent and publicly humiliate each other.
As you can imagine, our flying friend was also immersed in the war of the bones.
In those years, at the end of the 19th century, both Marsh and Cope had unearthed several remains of pterosaurs.
When Cope discovered these two fossils, instead of classifying them as pterodactyls, he named them Ornithochirus umbrosus and Ornithochirus harpyia (so he could point them out a bit more).
Each was using a different name for the same species.
This opened up the battle between Marsh and Cope again. The conflict was so strong that it was even written about. In the end, it would be the name of Marsh that would prevail since it had been recorded before.
Do you remember the tooth that Marsh had misidentified?
That tooth caused all the fossils, both Pterodactylus and Pteranodon, that had been found to be assigned to the same species. Everyone thought our flying friend had teeth.
It was only a few years later that Marsh himself discovered two skulls. This made them realize that this flying creature had no teeth; therefore, it could not be a Pterodactyl. In 1876, Marsh baptized the Pteranodon.
Where and when did the Pteranodon live
Our flying “dinosaur” (we have already seen that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs) lived in the Cretaceous.
If we take out our rule of time we see that the Cretaceous is the last stage of the Mesozoic era. And the Mesozoic era was the period where the… …dinosaurs lived! Of course, the pterosaurs coexisted with the T.rex and other working friends.
The Cretaceous period lasted about 80 million years and ended with the impact of the meteorite. The Cenozoic era was beginning.
As for where, the Pteranodon lived mainly in the North American area. Of course, in the Cretaceous, it didn’t look the same. The vast majority of what is now the United States was under water.
What this pteranosaurus was like: characteristics
Now, let’s go with our millimeter x-ray of what the Pteranodon looked like. Although in general terms we could describe its physical appearance as follows:
- A long, narrow body.
- Two tiny legs.
- A very short tail.
- Two powerful wings supported by two arms.
- A very curious thing in that the arms only reached half the size of the wing. The arm ended in a “hand” with four fingers. As they protruded out of the wing, the fourth was very long. As long as it was holding the rest of the wing.
- Long, narrow beak.
- Its head was topped by an immense ridge.
- It had big eyes. It is believed that his sense of sight was quite developed.
How big was our “flying dinosaur”
This species can be divided into two groups because of its size.
The smaller ones (the females) had smaller crests, while their pelvis was larger. In fact, it is the size of the pelvis (it was bigger to be able to lay eggs) that helped determine that these Pteranodons were not a new species, but females.
The difference in size between males and females was important. On average, from one wing tip to the other, a male was up to 6 meters long. However, the largest specimen was over 7 metres long. Females, on the other hand, did not usually reach 4 metres.
The Pteranodon was the largest known pterosaur. However, all that would change in 1975, when the Azdarchids (Family Azhdarchidae) were discovered. The name probably doesn’t ring a bell, but if I mention the Quetzalcoatlus it will ring a bell even more (this pterosaur was as tall as 12 meters).
And how much did it weigh?
There is no conformity at this point. Estimates have been made of a wide variety of things and figures as disparate as 20 or 90 kilos have been given.
The reality is that a very recent study (2010) stated that all previous research to estimate the weight of the Pteranodon was based on incorrect parameters.
What were its wings like?
Its wings were like giant membranes composed of muscles. A good way to imagine them is to think of the wings of a bat.
In addition to the arm and that extra-long toe, the wings were like a big layer that reached down to the legs.
How did such a large being fly?
In an article, the American Museum of Natural History explains that the Pteranodons developed a streamlined structure of their own.
This species evolved in such a way that its arms and fingers were extended to support its wings. It’s the same thing you see on the masts of ships. The woods hold the sails so that they can be stretched by the wind.
In addition, the Museum also states that they are the only vertebrates, along with birds and bats, that are able to fly by flapping their wings. The rest of the animals just glide through the air.
Another curiosity comes from their bones. For a Pteranodon to take off it would need strong, thick bones to propel itself. But bones like these would have made it heavier.
What was the solution?
The bones were hollow inside and no thicker than a playing card. Only the ends were reinforced.
The American Museum of Natural History has an ipad application about you discovering these creatures. It’s called Pterosaurs: A flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.
In the app (it is free) you will be able to see different species of pterosaurs and their most relevant characteristics.
The last question about their wings is very fashionable, since the latest discoveries regarding dinosaurs point out that some of them did have wings. I am referring to the feathers.
Did pterosaurs have feathers on their wings?
Well, no, not in this case. Their wings were completely membranous, which is why I mentioned to you before that you imagined a bat.
Could the wings of the Pteranodon have had any other function?
They might. Its wings were so long that it is believed that it could fold them up and lie on the ground with them. It would be as if it walked with its elbows as well, in a quadrupedal position.
In addition to walking on the ground, this system could also help him gain momentum for take-off.
The ridge of the pteranosaurs
One of the most distinctive features of the Pteranodon was its ridge. However, let’s start with the skull and its beak.
As we saw earlier, its head was topped by a huge beak. A huge toothless beak (forget about Jurasic Park).
Its beak was very long, narrow and pointed. The reason for this is that it is believed that he could fish better this way. In this, he was also lucky to have a great sense of sight.
Now you’re talking, let’s go to the ridge.
The first thing we must bear in mind is that the crests were not the same for all the specimens.
The ridge varied according to species, genus and age.
For example, the P. sternbergi had a more vertical ridge and as if it were a toupee it rose forward. As for the genus, females had more rounded crests and were smaller
The reality is that it is uncertain what function the crest could have. There are multiple theories circulating.
It’s thought that it could serve as a rudder for flying, a brake in the air, or a counterweight to the peak. However, none of these assumptions have proved accurate for the wide variety of ridges that existed.
While for a medium-sized Pteranodon the ridge could serve as a counterweight to the bill, in females or larger specimens this hypothesis would not be fulfilled. The same objection was made to the rudder theory, but in females and P. sternbergi it was impossible for the ridge to serve this function.
Nowadays, the opinion that may have more foundation is the one that focuses on believing that the Pteranodon ridge served as a sexual claim.
This pterosaur’s behaviour: lifestyle
One of the questions that intrigues us all the most is how dinosaurs lived. What their day-to-day life was really like.
Do you want to see how this giant flying animal lived?
Let’s get to it.
What did this pterosaur eat
Our “flying dinosaur” was a carnivore. The central food in its diet was fish. As I mentioned before, its long beak and good eyesight were two great weapons for fishing in the rivers.
But how did the Pteranodon fish?
It has been generally depicted as gliding over the water and introducing only its beak when it saw a fish. It is now believed that it could get totally into the water. Not only that, it is believed that it could dive into the water just as some modern birds do.
What his lifestyle was like
This is not a lonely creature that roams the skies. On the contrary, it seems they were quite sociable and used to live in groups.
We can know this because when fossils were found, it was normal to find several different specimens.
Another very particular thing is that they were polygamous. It is believed that the males competed with each other in order to have access to the groups of females. In some cases, some specimens never mated due to the high level of competition.
Pteranodon vs Quetzalcoatlus
The reality is that a struggle between these two pterosaurs could have occurred since both coexisted in the Cretaceous period. The Quetzalcoatlus as well as the Pteranodon fed mostly on fish, but occasionally on small vertebrates.
It seems unlikely that either was exposed to a fight with the other. Although the Pteranodon was smaller than the Quetzalcoatlus, it was large enough to put up a fierce fight.
And to finish our article on this fascinating creature, I ask you one last question:
What if this creature still existed?
I bring before you the mystery of the Pteranodon.
For some time now there have been photos circulating on the Internet where you can see a pterosaur captured by several soldiers during the American Civil War. In theory, this photograph was taken in the city of Vicksburg in 1864.
Without a doubt, the most striking is the last one in which you can see the Pteranodon and several soldiers around it lying on the ground.
Throughout history, different hypotheses have emerged as to whether some of these flying “dinosaurs” could still exist. Although in some cases people have raised ridiculous questions (such as confusing a pelican with a pterosaur), there are many people who swear and perjure themselves that in some isolated areas they still exist.
What did you think of our pterosaur friend?
For me this creature is one of the most amazing that ever existed.
You can imagine how incredible it would be to see one dive into the water, and the second, when it seemed that it would not come out anymore, the Pteranodon would emerge again flying to the sky.
Mind you, always with a huge fish in its beak. 🙂