At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, there’s no way to miss the Tyrannosaurs. The museum’s curators have constructed a scene in which two colossal theropods square off over a kill—mouths agape, teeth like sickles threatening to disembowel whichever fossil flinches first. You can almost feel the ground shake as the stone giants circle the carcass.
But what of the sky? We tend to forget that while T. rex, Triceratops, Diplodocus, and the like were lumbering across the land, the air above was thick with volant reptiles.
If you look up, you’ll see that the bones of Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur the size of a freakin’ fighter jet.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t even know it’s there,” says Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist at the CMNH.
Of course, if humans had lived during the time of the pterosaurs, I think we’d have learned to look up.
Quetzalcoatlus and its cousins are the largest flying creatures that ever lived. On the ground, they stalked about on all fours while standing 16 feet high. They had sharp, nasty beaks longer than the tallest basketball players are tall. In the sky, their leathery skin wings unfurled into airfoils some 36 feet wide. (Some of the more out-there estimates give the beasts wingspans of seemingly impossible proportions—nearly 70 feet in one extrapolation.)
But Quetzalcoatlus and its monstrous kin are just one branch of the pterosaur family tree. We tend to think of pterosaurs as all being big, flappy sky reptiles, but these animals were every bit as diverse as the dinosaurs they shared the world with. And most of us don’t know a lick about them.
For starters, did you know that pterosaurs were not, in fact, dinosaurs?
“Pterosaurs are about as closely related as they can be to a dinosaur without being a dinosaur themselves,” says Lamanna. “So when you hear people call them ‘flying dinosaurs,’ that’s almost right, but not quite.”
Another way to explain this confusion is that some dinosaurs gave rise to modern birds, which can look a bit like pterosaurs. But there are no living descendants of the pterosaurs.
And while we’re clearing up semantics, can we get a show of hands of who uses the word pterodactyl as a synonym for pterosaur? (Don’t be shy. My hand is up.)
In fact, pterodactyls are simply one kind of pterosaur. So referring to all pterosaurs as though they were pterodactyls is a bit like calling every species of cat a leopard.
But perhaps the wackiest and most misunderstood thing about the pterosaurs was that, as a group, they varied in size from the gargantuan Quetzalcoatlus—named for the Aztec serpent god—all the way down to creatures that would have been about the size of a songbird. (Remember Petrie from The Land Before Time? He was a pterosaur.)
“If you can think of an ecological niche or job that a bird does today, there’s a good chance that we know of a pterosaur that probably did the same thing,” says Lamanna.
The Azhdarchids, which include Quetzalcoatlus, are thought to have been giant plains predators, capable of killing prey with their spearlike beaks and then swallowing it whole. They probably also muscled in on carcasses that some other predator had already brought down. This opportunistic lifestyle is similar to that of modern-day storks and hornbills. But, you know, storks and hornbills from hell.
(There is a bit of good news, should Jurassic Park theme parks ever become a reality. Pterosaurs had nowhere near the grasping power that modern eagles or hawks possess. So in Jurassic World, when pterosaurs break out of the aviary and start plucking tourists off the ground like berries from a bush, Lamanna says we should be skeptical. “It’s just not something pterosaurs could do. I don’t think even the biggest pterosaur could pick up a human-sized object.” Still, watch out for the beaks.)
Some smaller pterosaurs acted like modern-day oystercatchers that stabbed or hammered their prey. And toothy-grinned Dsungaripterus used its massive molars to chomp right through clams, crabs, and whatever other shelled creatures it could fit in its maw.
In what is now South America, scientists have found a filter-feeding pterosaur named Pterodaustro that seems to have filled the role that flamingoes do today. These animals used their curved beaks and hundreds of bristle-like teeth to strain the ancient waters for plankton, algae, and small crustaceans.
“And then there’s this really weird group of insect eaters, the Anurognathids,” says Lamanna. “These would have been about the size of a modest bird, like a blue jay, and seemed to be extremely agile.”
Personally, I love the Anurognathids because they don’t conform to what we tend to think of when we imagine pterosaurs. They don’t have the long beaks, head crests, or tails of pterosaurs in movies and cartoons. In fact, to see some artist renderings, it looks like nature took the head of a snake, mixed in the teeth of a piranha, and slapped it on a bat. Other species may have looked like sugar gliders, swallowtail moths, or creatures out of a Tim Burton film.
Like birds, pterosaurs tended to have fragile bones—an adaptation for lightness and flight, but one that makes fossilization a precarious process. Lamanna says because of this we’ve probably only just scratched the surface on the variety of pterosaurs that once existed.
Might we one day find a pterosaur that lived like an owl? What about puffin, woodpecker, and parrot pterosaurs? Might some of these creatures have found ways to survive without flight, like the ostrich or penguin do today? (In fact, some scientists have argued that Quetzalcoatlus would have been too big to get airborne. Most other experts disagree, though.)
These are the kinds of questions asked by an exhibit called “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs” now making its way across the country. The pterosaurs land in Pittsburgh on Jan. 30, 2016, and I can’t wait.
One thing, at least, is clear. Pterosaurs were incredibly diverse creatures, far more so than our plastic toys and CGI-laden movies give them credit for. Just imagine a small flock of these guys squabbling over bread crumbs at the park or zipping after mosquitoes above your backyard barbeque.
Or more chilling—imagine the shadow of Quetzalcoatlus engulfing your SUV as you motor across Route 66. Let’s hope you remembered to fill the gas tank in Amarillo.
*Correction, Jan. 4, 2016: This post originally misstated that animals in both the Pteranodon and Rhamphorhynchus genera as long-tailed. Only Rhamphorhynchus had long tails.