Ornithocheirus

ornithocheirus
Ornithocheirus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Ornithocheirus (Greek for "bird hand"); pronounced OR-nith-oh-CARE-us

Habitat:

Shores of western Europe and South America

Historical Period:

Middle Cretaceous (100-95 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspans of 10-20 feet and weights of 50-100 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large wingspan; long, thin snout with bony protuberance on end

 

About Ornithocheirus

Ornithocheirus wasn't the largest pterosaur ever to take to the skies during the Mesozoic Era--that honor belonged to the truly enormous Quetzalcoatlus--but it was certainly the biggest pterosaur of the middle Cretaceous period, since Quetzalcoatlus didn't appear on the scene until shortly before the K/T Extinction Event.

Aside from its 10- to 20-foot wingspan, what set Ornithocheirus apart from other pterosaurs was the bony "keel" on the end of its snout, which may have been used to crack open the shells of crustaceans, to intimidate other pterosaurs in search of the same prey, or to attract the opposite sex during mating season.

Discovered in the early 19th century, Ornithocheirus occasioned its share of disputes among the famous paleontologists of the day. This pterosaur was officially named in 1870 by Harry Seeley, who chose its moniker (Greek for "bird hand") because he assumed Ornithocheirus was ancestral to modern birds. He was wrong--birds actually descended from small theropod dinosaurs, probably multiple times during the later Mesozoic Era--but not as wrong as his rival Richard Owen, who at that time didn't accept the theory of evolution and thus didn't believe Ornithocheirus was ancestral to anything!

The confusion Seeley generated over a century ago, no matter how well-meaning, persists today. At one time or another, there have been dozens of named Ornithocheirus species, most of them based on fragmentary and poorly preserved fossil specimens, of which only one, O. simus, remains in widespread use.

Further complicating matters, the more recent discovery of large pterosaurs dating from late Cretaceous South America--such as Anhanguera and Tupuxuara--raises the possibility that these genera should properly be assigned as Ornithocheirus species. (We won't even mention controversial genera, like Tropeognathus and Coloborhynchus, that some researchers consider to be synonymous with Ornithocheirus.)