Pterosaur Pictures and Profiles

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These Pterosaurs Ruled the Skies of the Mesozoic Era

tapejara
Tapejara. Sergey Krasovskiy

Pterosaurs--the "winged lizards"--ruled the skies of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. On the following slides, you'll find pictures and detailed profiles of 50 pterosaurs, ranging from A (Aerotitan) to Z (Zhejiangopterus). 

02
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Aerotitan

aerotitan
Aerotitan. Nobu Tamura

Name

Aerotitan (Greek for "air titan"); pronounced AIR-oh-tie-tan

Habitat

Skies of South America

Historical Period

Late Cretaceous (75-65 million years ago)

Size and Weight

Wingspan of 15-20 feet and about 200 pounds

Diet

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics

Large size; long, narrow beak

 

The end of the Cretaceous period witnessed the rise of the "azhdarchid" pterosaurs, huge, flying reptiles possessing wingspans of 20, 30 or even 40 feet (the largest of this breed, Quetzalcoatlus, was the size of a small plane!) The importance of the impressively named Aerotitan is that it's the first undisputed azhdarchid pterosaur to have been native to South America, and it's possible that full-grown members of the genus rivaled Quetzalcoatlus in size. To date, though, Aerotitan is represented in the fossil record by very limited remains (only parts of the beak), so any speculation should be indulged in with a big grain of Cretaceous salt.

03
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Aetodactylus

aetodactylus
Aetodactylus. Karen Carr

Name:

Aetodactylus (Greek for "eagle finger"); pronounced AY-toe-DACK-till-us

Habitat:

Skies of North America

Historical Period:

Middle Cretaceous (95 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of nine feet and weight of 20-30 pounds

Diet:

Small fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, narrow snout studded with sharp teeth

 

"Diagnosed" on the basis of its partial jawbones--which were discovered in southwestern Texas--Aetodactylus was a toothed pterosaur closely related to the slightly larger Ornithocheirus, and is only the second pterosaur of its kind to be discovered in North America. Clearly, this creature made its living by diving into the shallow Western Interior Sea (which covered much of western North America during the middle Cretaceous period) and spearing fish and marine reptiles. The discovery of Aetodactylus is a hint that the pterosaurs of North America may have been more diverse than previously believed, encompassing all sizes of toothed and toothless species. This makes sense, since toothed pterosaurs have been discovered in contemporary Cretaceous deposits in Eurasia, which was once joined to North America in the supercontinent Laurasia.

04
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Alanqa

alanqa
Alanqa. Davide Belladonna

Name:

Alanqa (Arabic for "phoenix"); pronounced a-LAN-kah

Habitat:

Swamps of northern Africa

Historical Period:

Middle Cretaceous (95 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 20 feet and 100-200 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; heron-like lower jaw

 

Announced to the world in 2010, Alanqa (its last, or species, name is the self-explanatory "saharica") was a giant northern African pterosaur, and possibly the earliest of the plus-sized "azhdarchid" pterosaurs that terrorized the small dinosaurs, fish and mammals of the late Cretaceous period (the most famous azhdarchid was the truly enormous Quetzalcoatlus). As is the case with other azhdarchids, it's possible that Alanqa saharica wasn't capable of flight, but stalked the swamps of the once-lush Sahara like a predatory, theropod dinosaur. Beyond its size, though, the most notable thing about Alanqa is where its remains were found--the fossil evidence for African pterosaurs is extremely scarce!

05
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Anhanguera

anhanguera
Anhanguera. North American Museum of Ancient Life

Name:

Anhanguera (Portuguese for "old devil"); pronounced ahn-han-GAIR-ah

Habitat:

Skies of South America and Australia

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (125-115 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 15 feet and 40-50 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, crested beak and long neck; small legs

 

One of the larger pterosaurs of the early Cretaceous period, Anhanguera was also one of the few to sport crests on both sides of its long, narrow beak: a bulbous protrusion on top and a smaller, less obvious swelling on the bottom. Aside from this unusual feature, the most notable thing about Anhanguera was its relatively weak, puny legs; clearly, this pterosaur spent most of its time in the air, and had a clumsy, splay-footed posture on land. Anhanguera's closest relative was the later Ornithocheirus; we can only speculate whether it was as colorful as two other roughly contemporary South American pterosaurs, Tapejara and Tupuxuara.

06
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Anurognathus

anurognathus
Anurognathus. Dmitry Bogdanov

If the name Anurognathus seems difficult to pronounce, the translation is even weirder: "frog jaw." The shape of its head aside, the most notable thing about this pterosaur was its diminutive size--only about three inches long and a quarter of an ounce! See an in-depth profile of Anurognathus

07
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Austriadactylus

austriadactylus
Austriadactylus. Julio Lacerda

Name

Austriadactylus (Greek for "Austrian finger"); pronounced AW-stree-ah-DACK-till-us

Habitat

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period

Late Triassic (200 million years ago)

Size and Weight

Wingspan of two feet and a few pounds

Diet

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics

Long, crested skull; long tail

 

Considering how many ancestral pterosaurs have been discovered in Germany's Solnhofen fossil beds, it's only fair that Germany's southern neighbor Austria got into the act as well. Named in 2002, based on a single, incomplete specimen, Austradactylus was a classic "rhamphorhynchoid" pterosaur, with a disproportionately large head perched atop a tiny, long-tailed body. Its closest relatives seem to have been the better-attested Campylognathoides and Eudimorphodon, to the extent that some paleontologists classify it as a species of the latter genus.

08
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Azhdarcho

azhdarcho
Azhdarcho. Andrey Atuchin

Name:

Azhdarcho (Uzbek for "dragon"); pronounced azh-DAR-coe

Habitat:

Plains of central Asia

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (90 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 15 feet and 20-30 pounds

Diet:

Probably fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long wings; short tail; long, massive head

 

As so often happens in paleontology, Azhdarcho is less important in itself than in the fact that this creature has lent its name to an important family of pterosaurs: the "azhdarchids," which includes giant, flying reptiles of the late Cretaceous period like Quetzalcoatlus and Zhejiangopterus. Azhdarcho itself is known by only limited fossil remains, which present the picture of a medium-sized pterosaur possessing a bizarrely oversized head and beak--a strange mix of anatomical traits that has occasioned some controversy about Azhdarcho's feeding habits.

09
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Bakonydraco

bakonydraco
Bakonydraco. Sergey Krasovskiy

Name:

Bakonydraco (Greek for "Bakony dragon"); pronounced BAH-coe-knee-DRAY-coe

Habitat:

Plains of central Europe

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (85-80 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 15 feet and 20-30 pounds

Diet:

Probably fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small, backward-pointing crest; toothless lower jaw

 

As is the case with many pterosaurs, Bakonydraco is represented in the fossil record by frustratingly incomplete remains, mostly comprising its lower jaw. Based on some distinctive anatomical structures, though, it's clear that this was a medium-sized, "azhdarchid" pterosaur ancestral to later giants like Quetzalcoatlus and Zhejiangopterus--and, judging by the distinctive shape of its skull, Bakonydraco probably pursued a highly specialized diet, either consisting of fish or fruit (or possibly both).

10
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Caiuajara

caiuajara
Caiujara. Mauricio Oliveira

Name

Caiuajara (a combination of the Caiua Formation and Tapejara); pronounced KY-ooh-ah-HAH-rah

Habitat

Deserts of South America

Historical Period

Late Cretaceous (85 million years ago)

Size and Weight

Wingspan of six feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet

Small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics

Moderate size; large head with prominent crest

 

Compared to other prehistoric creatures, the fossils of pterosaurs are surprisingly evanescent--often a new genus is diagnosed on the basis of a single fractured wing, or a piece of jaw. What makes Caiaujara special is that the type specimen of this pterosaur was reconstructed from hundreds of bones corresponding to dozens of individuals, all discovered in the same fossil bed in southern Brazil in 1971, but only examined by paleontologists in 2011. Caiuajara was clearly related to Tapejara (after which it is partially named), and its recovery from a tangled bonebed is a strong hint that this late Cretaceous pterosaur was gregarious in nature and lived in extended colonies (a behavior shared by only one other identified pterosaur, Pterodaustro).

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Campylognathoides

campylognathoides
Campylognathoides. Dmitri Bogdanov

Name:

Campylognathoides (Greek for "curved jaw"); pronounced CAMP-ill-og-NATH-oy-deez

Habitat:

Skies of Eurasia

Historical Period:

Early Jurassic (180 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of five feet and a few pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large eyes; upward-curving jaws

 

An early Jurassic pterosaur that would probably be better known if it had a more pronounceable name, Campylognathoides was a classic "rhamphorhynchoid," with its small size, long tail, and relatively large head. The large eyes of Campylognathoides indicate that this pterosaur may have fed at night, and its upward-curving jaws point to a diet of fish, for which it would have dived like a modern seagull. Although numerous pterosaurs have been discovered in western Europe (and especially England), Campylognathoides is notable in that one of its "type fossils" was unearthed in India as well, a hint that it may have had a very widespread distribution 180 million years ago.

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Caulkicephalus

caulkicephalus
Caulkicephalus. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Caulkicephalus (Greek for "caulk head"): pronounced CAW-kih-SEFF-ah-luss

Habitat:

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (130-125 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 15 feet and 40-50 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; crest on head; oddly pointed teeth

 

The name Caulkicephalus is a bit of an in-joke among paleontologists: the residents of the Isle of Wight, where the incomplete remains of this pterosaur were discovered in the late 1990's, are affectionately known as "caulkheads," and Caulkicephalus is a rough Greek translation. This pterosaur bore an evolutionary relationship to both Pterodactylus and Ornithocheirus; its 15-foot wingspan and unique tooth structure (various teeth in the front of its narrow beak pointing in different directions) hint that it made its living by swooping out of the sky and plucking fish out of the water.

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Cearadactylus

cearadactylus
Cearadactylus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Cearadactylus (Greek for "Ceara finger"); pronounced see-AH-rah-DACK-till-us

Habitat:

Lakes and rivers of South America

Historical Period:

Middle Cretaceous (110-100 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 18 feet and 30-40 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, narrow jaws capped by intermeshing teeth

 

Named after the Ceara region of Brazil, where its single, incomplete fossil was discovered, Cearadactylus was a typical plus-sized pterosaur of the middle Cretaceous period whose closest relatives were Ctenochasma and Gnathosaurus. Judging by its long, narrow beak with long, intermeshing teeth at the very end, Cearadactylus made its living by plucking fish out of lakes and rivers. Unlike other South American pterosaurs, Cearadactylus lacked an ornate crest on top of its head, and probably didn't sport the bright colors of genera like Tapejara and Tupuxuara.

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Coloborhynchus

coloborhynchus
Coloborhynchus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Coloborhynchus (Greek for "maimed beak"); pronounced CO-low-bow-RINK-us

Habitat:

Skies of North America and Eurasia

Historical Period:

Middle Cretaceous (110-100 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 100 pounds and wingspan of 20-25 feet

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; toothed jaws

 

Because the bones of pterosaurs don't tend to preserve well in the fossil record, these flying reptiles are often identified by fragments of beaks or wings. Coloborhynchus was named in 1874 by the famous paleontologist Richard Owen on the basis of a partial upper jaw; many paleontologists, however, considered this genus to be identical to the better-attested Ornithocheirus. Over a century later, the discovery of additional jaw fossils, with the characteristic orientation of their front teeth, lent more weight to Owen's original designation.

The reason Coloborynchus has been in the news lately is the recent discovery of an unusually large jaw fragment, which points to a toothed pterosaur bearing a 23-foot wingspan--meaning that Coloborhynchus outclassed even its close relative Ornithocheirus in size. Even still, the various proposed species of Coloborhynchus continue to carry a faint whiff of disreputability; no sooner had this pterosaur untangled itself from Ornithocheirus than other paleontologists lumped it in with even more obscure genera like Uktenedactylus and Siroccopteryx.

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Ctenochasma

ctenochasma
Ctenochasma. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Ctenochasma (Greek for "comb jaw"); pronounced STEN-oh-KAZZ-mah

Habitat:

Lakes and ponds of western Europe

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (150 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 3-4 feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Plankton

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, narrow beak with hundreds of needle-like teeth

 

The name Ctenochasma (Greek for "comb jaw") is right on the money: the long, narrow beak of this late Jurassic pterosaur was studded with over 200 fine, needle-like teeth, which created an intermeshing, comb-like structure well-suited to filtering plankton from the ponds and lakes of western Europe. To judge by this pterosaur's well-preserved remains (some of which were found at the Solnhofen fossil beds in Germany), adult Ctenochasma possessed modest crests on their heads, which were lacking in juveniles. Also, it appears that Ctenochasma hatchlings were born with only 50 or 60 teeth, and sprouted the full complement as they aged.

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Cuspicephalus

cuspicephalus
Cuspicephalus. Nobu Tamura

Name

Cuspicephalus (Greek for "pointy head"); pronounced CUSS-pih-SEFF-ah-luss

Habitat

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period

Late Jurassic (155 million years ago)

Size and Weight

About three feet long and a few pounds

Diet

Probably fish

Distinguishing Characteristics

Long, pointed beak; short tail

 

Discovered in England in 2009, and announced to the world four years later, Cuspicephalus was a classic "pterodactyloid" pterosaur of the late Jurassic period, about 155 million years ago. What set Cuspicephalus apart from other pterosaurs of its kind was its foot-long skull, half of which was taken up by an elongated "fenestra" (i.e., the hollow portion of its skull) and the other half by a narrow snout studded with about 40 teeth. Amusingly, not only does the genus name Cuspicephalus translate as "pointy head," but this pterosaur's species name (scarfi) honors the British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, famous for his pointy-nosed caricatures.

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Cycnorhamphus

cycnorhamphus
Cycnorhamphus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Cycnorhamphus (Greek for "swan beak"); pronounced SIC-no-RAM-fuss

Habitat:

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (150 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 4-5 feet and 10 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Short tail; long bill with outward-curving teeth

 

Not the most easily spelled pterosaur, Cycnoramphus was originally known as Gallodactylus ("French finger"), until a reassessment of its fossil specimens prompted paleontologists to revert to the genus name coined way back in 1870, by the famous paleontologist Harry Seeley. Essentially, Cycnorhamphus was an extremely close cousin of Pterodactylus, virtually indistinguishable from this more famous pterosaur except for the buck teeth studding the ends of its jaws (which were probably an adaptation to grasping and cracking mollusks and other shelled invertebrates).

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Darwinopterus

darwinopterus
Darwinopterus. Nobu Tamura

Darwinopterus, represented by over 20 fossils from northeastern China, is a transitional form between the two main types of pterosaur, rhamphorhynchoid and pterodactyloid. This flying reptile had an unusually large head and beak, but a puny body with a long, primitive tail. See an in-depth profile of Darwinopterus

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Dimorphodon

dimorphodon
Dimorphodon. Dmitry Bogdanov

Dimorphodon is one of those creatures that looks like it was put together wrong out of the box: its head is much bigger than that of other pterosaurs, and might as well have been cut and pasted from a larger, terrestrial dinosaur. See an in-depth profile of Dimorphodon

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Dorygnathus

dorygnathus
Dorygnathus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Dorygnathus (Greek for "spear jaw"); pronounced DOOR-rig-NATH-us

Habitat:

Shores of western Europe

Historical Period:

Early Jurassic (190 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 3 feet long and a few pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long tail; long, intermeshing front teeth

 

With its long tail and narrow wings, Dorygnathus was a good example of what paleontologists call a "rhamphorhynchoid" pterosaur (among its closest relatives were Rhamphorhynchus and Dimorphodon). Rhamphorhynchoids have been found almost exclusively in western Europe, though it's not clear if this is because they were confined to this geographical location or if conditions in early Jurassic Europe happened to be well-suited for fossil preservation.

The most notable feature of Dorygnathus was its long, intermeshing front teeth, which it almost certainly used to snag fish off the surface of the water and hold them firmly in its mouth. Although the fossil specimens discovered so far have been fairly small, as pterosaurs go, there's some speculation that adults of the species may have grown throughout their lives and attained wingspans of five or six feet.

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Dsungaripterus

Dsungaripterus
Dsungaripterus. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Dsungaripterus (Greek for "Junggar Basin wing"); pronounced SUNG-ah-RIP-ter-us

Habitat:

Seashores of Asia

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (130 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 10 feet and 20-30 pounds

Diet:

Fish and crustaceans

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, upward-curving beak; bony crest on snout

 

In most ways, Dsungaripterus was a typical pterosaur of the early Cretaceous period, with large, leathery wings, hollow bones, and a long neck and head. Its most unusual feature was its beak, which curved upward at the tip, an adaptation that likely helped it spear fish or pry shellfish from the undersides of rocks. This pterosaur also had an unusual crest on its snout, which was probably a sexually selected characteristic (that is, males with bigger crests had a better chance of mating with females, or vice-versa).

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Eudimorphodon

eudimorphodon
Eudimorphodon. Wikimedia Commons

Eudimorphodon holds an important place in the record books as one of the earliest pterosaurs: this smallish (only about two feet long) reptile hopped around the shores of Europe a whopping 210 million years ago, during the late Triassic period. See an in-depth profile of Eudimorphodon

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Europejara

europejara
Europejara. Wikimedia Commons

Name

Europejara (combination English/Tupi for "European being"); pronounced your-OH-peh-HAR-rah

Habitat

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period

Early Cretaceous (125 million years ago)

Size and Weight

Wingspan of six feet and 20-25 pounds

Diet

Probably fruit

Distinguishing Characteristics

Large crest on head; toothless jaws

 

During the early Cretaceous period, the skies of South America were filled with colorful, big-crested pterosaurs like Tapejara and Tupuxuara, which were roughly analogous to the giant parrots and macaws that populate that continent today. The importance of Europejara is that it's the first "tapejarid" pterosaur to be discovered in Europe, a hint that these pterosaurs may have had a wider distribution than previously believed. By tapejarid standards, though, Europejara was fairly small, with a wingspan of only six feet, and the lack of teeth in its jaws points to an exclusive diet of fruit, rather than smaller mammals, birds and reptiles.

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Feilongus

feilongus
Feilongus. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Feilongus (Chinese for "flying dragon"); pronounced fie-LONG-us

Habitat:

Skies of Asia

Historical Period:

Early-Middle Cretaceous (130-115 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of eight feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Crests on top of snout and back of skull; long, narrow beak

 

Feilongus is only one of a huge assortment of pterosaurs, feathered dinosaurs and prehistoric birds that have been recovered from China's Jehol fossil beds; it belonged to the same general group as the more well-known Pterodactylus and Ornithocheirus. (Just how complicated is it to sort out the evolutionary relationships of pterosaurs? Well, technically Feilongus is known as an "archaeopterodactyloid.") Like other pterosaurs of the early Cretaceous period, the long-beaked Feilongus made its living by diving for fish in the lakes and ponds of its Asian habitat.

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Germanodactylus

germanodactylus
Germanodactylus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Germanodactylus (Greek for "German finger"); pronounced jer-MAN-oh-DACK-till-us

Habitat:

Shores of Western Europe

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (150 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of three feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Short tail; prominent head crest

 

One of the problems with investigating the evolutionary relationships of pterosaurs is that these flying reptiles were so numerous, and so similar looking, that they can be hard to distinguish from one another on the genus (much less the species) level. A case in point is the late Jurassic Germanodactylus, which for years was thought to be a species of Pterodactylus, until a more rigorous analysis showed that it deserved its own genus.

As pterosaurs go, Germanodactylus tended toward plain vanilla, except for its prominent (and probably prominently colored) head crest--which was composed of solid bone on the bottom and soft tissue on the top. This crest was most likely a sexually selected characteristic (i.e., males with bigger crests had the opportunity to mate with more females, or vice-versa), and it may secondarily have served some aerodynamic function.

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Gnathosaurus

gnathosaurus
Gnathosaurus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Gnathosaurus (Greek for "jaw lizard"); pronounced NATH-oh-SORE-us

Habitat:

Lakes and ponds of western Europe

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (150 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of five feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Plankton and small marine organisms

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, narrow beak with numerous teeth

 

Gnathosaurus was discovered very early in paleontological history--so early that, when its incomplete fossil was unearthed in Germany's Solnhofen fossil beds in 1833, this creature was identified as a prehistoric crocodile. Soon enough, though, experts realized they were dealing with a medium-sized pterosaur, which clearly used its narrow, tooth-studded beak to filter plankton and small marine organisms from the lakes and ponds of western Europe. Gnathosaurus was closely related to another plankton-feeding pterosaur of the late Jurassic period, Ctenochasma, and it's possible that at least one species of Pterodactylus may wind up being assigned to this genus.

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Hamipterus

hamipterus
Hamipterus. Chuang Zhao

Name

Hamipterus ("Hami wing," after the Turhan-Hami Basin); pronounced ham-IP-teh-russ

Habitat

Rivers and lakes of Asia

Historical Period

Early Cretaceous (120 million years ago)

Size and Weight

About three feet long and a few pounds

Diet

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics

Moderate size; long, narrow crest on snout

 

Preserved pterosaur eggs are rarer than the proverbial hen's teeth--which is why the recent discovery of Hamipterus alongside a clutch of its own eggs made such big news. Like another early Cretaceous pterosaur, Ikrandraco, Hamipterus seems to have been gregarious (its tangled bones have been discovered by the thousands in northwestern China), and it appears to have buried its elongated eggs along the shores of lakes, to keep them from drying out (though there's no evidence that adults cared for the hatchlings after they were born). Hamipterus was also distinguished by a long, narrow and probably colorful crest along the top of its beak, which may have been more prominent in males than in females (or vice-versa).

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Hatzegopteryx

hatzegopteryx
Hatzegopteryx. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Hatzegopteryx (Greek for "Hatzeg wing"); pronounced HAT-zeh-GOP-teh-rix

Habitat:

Skies of central Europe

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (65 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of up to 40 feet and weight of 200-250 pounds

Diet:

Meat

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; three-foot-long beak

 

Hatzegopteryx poses a puzzle worthy of a TV detective show. To judge from this reptile's incomplete remains, including pieces of its skull and humerus, Hatzegopteryx may have been the largest pterosaur that ever lived, with a wingspan possibly approaching 40 feet (compared to "only" 35 feet or so for the biggest known pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus). Even the skull of Hatzegopteryx was gigantic, one reconstruction pegging it at over ten feet long, which would count as the biggest noggin of any non-marine creature in earth's history.

So what's the mystery? Well, apart from the elusive nature of Hatzegopteryx's fossil remains--it's a tricky business to reconstruct an extinct animal from only a handful of bones--there's the fact that this pterosaur lived on Hatzeg Island, which was isolated from the rest of Europe during the late Cretaceous period. The dinosaurs that lived on Hatzeg Island, most notably Telmatosaurus and Magyarosaurus, were much smaller than their mainland contemporaries, an example of "insular dwarfism" (that is, creatures on small islands tend to evolve to small sizes, so as not to outgrow the available resources). Why would such a huge pterosaur have lived on an island populated by dwarf dinosaurs? Until more fossil evidence is uncovered, we may never know the answer for sure.

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Ikrandraco

ikrandraco
Ikrandraco. Chuang Zhao

Ikrandraco is an odd choice to honor the Ikran, or "mountain banshees," of the hit movie Avatar: this early Cretaceous pterosaur was only about two and a half feet long and a few pounds, whereas the Ikran from flick are majestic, horse-sized creatures. See an in-depth profile of Ikrandraco

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Istiodactylus

istiodactylus
Istiodactylus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Istiodactylus (Greek for "sail finger"); pronounced ISS-tee-oh-DACK-till-us

Habitat:

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (125 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 15 foot wingspan and 50 pounds

Diet:

Probably fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; long, pointed beak

 

It took more than a century for Istiodactylus to be untangled from controversy (long story short, this mid-sized pterosaur was initially classified as a species of Ornithodesmus, until Ornithodesmus was itself downgraded because some of its bones turned out to belong to a terrestrial theropod, i.e. carnivorous dinosaur). Assigned to its own genus in 2001, Istiodactylus appears to have been an average pterosaur of the early Cretaceous period, closely related to the South American Anhanguera.

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Jeholopterus

jeholopterus
Jeholopterus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Jeholopterus (Greek for "Jehol wing"); pronounced JAY-hole-OP-ter-us

Habitat:

Shores of Asia

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (150-145 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of three feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Probably insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large, blunt head; large claws; hair-like pycnofibers on body

 

Science writers sometimes make mistakes, just like the rest of us. A few years ago, one well-meaning journalist proposed that Jeholopterus was far from your garden-variety pterosaur, interpreting its unusually large and sharp claws, its cat-like head, its widely articulated jaws (meaning it could open it mouth wider than other pterosaurs), its unusually short tail (for a rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur, that is), its coat of hair-like "pycnofibers" and, most controversially, the supposed fangs in the front of its mouth as meaning that it lived like a modern vampire bat, attaching itself to the backs of gigantic sauropods and sucking their blood.

Name:

Jeholopterus (Greek for "Jehol wing"); pronounced JAY-hole-OP-ter-us

Habitat:

Shores of Asia

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (150-145 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of three feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Probably insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large, blunt head; large claws; hair-like pycnofibers on body

 

Science writers sometimes make mistakes, just like the rest of us. A few years ago, one well-meaning journalist proposed that Jeholopterus was far from your garden-variety pterosaur, interpreting its unusually large and sharp claws, its cat-like head, its widely articulated jaws (meaning it could open it mouth wider than other pterosaurs), its unusually short tail (for a rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur, that is), its coat of hair-like "pycnofibers" and, most controversially, the supposed fangs in the front of its mouth as meaning that it lived like a modern vampire bat, attaching itself to the backs of gigantic sauropods and sucking their blood.

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Muzquizopteryx

muzquizopteryx
Muzquizopteryx. Nobu Tamura

Name

Muzquizopteryx (Greek for "Muzquiz wing"); pronounced MOOZ-kee-ZOP-teh-ricks

Habitat

Skies of southern North America

Historical Period

Late Cretaceous (90-85 million years ago)

Size and Weight

Wingspan of 6-7 feet and about 10-20 pounds

Diet

Probably fish

Distinguishing Characteristics

Moderate size; short tail; narrow beak

 

The pterosaurs of late Cretaceous North and South America were known for their large sizes--witness the enormous Quetzalcoatlus--which makes Muzquizopteryx, with its wingspan of only six or seven feet, the proverbial exception that proves the rule. This "pterodactyloid" pterosaur lacked teeth, had a long, narrow head topped by a short, rounded crest, and has been classified as a close relative of the big, colorfully crested Nyctosaurus. Oddly enough, both known fossil specimens of Muzquizopteryx were discovered by accident in a Mexican quarry; the first briefly decorated the wall of a quarry official, and the second was sold to a private collector and subsequently purchased by a Mexican natural history museum.

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Nemicolopterus

nemicolopterus
Nemicolopterus. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Nemicolopterus (Greek for "flying forest dweller"); pronounced NEH-me-co-LOP-ter-us

Habitat:

Forests of Asia

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (120 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 10 inches long and a few ounces

Diet:

Insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; curved claws to grasp tree branches

 

One of the latest in a series of spectacular Chinese fossil discoveries, Nemicolopterus is the smallest pterosaur (flying reptile) yet identified, comparable in size to a modern pigeon or sparrow. As tiny as it was, though, it's possible that Nemicolopterus occupied an early spot in the evolutionary line that produced monstrous late-Cretaceous pterosaurs like Pteranodon and Quetzalcoatlus. Because of the curved shape of its claws, paleontologists speculate that Nemicolopterus perched high up on the branches of ancient gingko and conifer trees, jumping from branch to branch to feed on insects (and, not incidentally, avoiding the larger tyrannosaurs and raptors that stomped through the woodlands of early Cretaceous Asia).

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Ningchengopterus

ningchengopterus
Ningchengopterus. Nobu Tamura

Name

Ningchengopterus (Greek for "Ningcheng wing"); pronounced NING-cheng-OP-teh-russ

Habitat

Skies of eastern Asia

Historical Period

Early Cretaceous (130-125 million years ago)

Size and Weight

About one foot long and less than a pound

Diet

Probably insects

Distinguishing Characteristics

Small size; short coat of fur

 

By all rights, Ningchengopterus should be a much better known creature than it is: the "type specimen" of this early Cretaceous pterosaur fossilized shortly after it hatched, giving paleontologists valuable insight into the early lives of these flying reptiles. Most notably, the wing structure of this juvenile shows that it was capable of flight--meaning newly hatched pterosaurs may have required minimal parental care before leaving the nest--and the preserved "pycnofibers" (a type of reptilian fur) probably had an insulating function. Pending further fossil discoveries, we don't yet know what size a full-grown Ningchengopterus was, or exactly what this pterosaur ate (though the hatchlings probably subsisted on insects).

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Nyctosaurus

nyctosaurus
Nyctosaurus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Nyctosaurus (Greek for "night lizard"); pronounced NICK-toe-SORE-us

Habitat:

Shores of North and South America

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (85-65 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 10 feet and 10-20 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, narrow, branched crest on head; possible sail

 

For over a hundred years, Nyctosaurus was believed to be a species of Pteranodon. That view changed in 2003, when a new fossil was discovered bearing an enormous, skeletal head crest, three times the length of this pterosaur's snout (and itself punctuated by a smaller, backward-pointing segment of bone). Clearly, paleontologists were dealing with an entirely new genus of pterosaur.

The question is, why did Nyctosaurus have this huge head ornament? Some paleontologists think this bone may actually have been the "mast" of an enormous sail of skin, which presumably helped Nyctosaurus fly, float and/or steer over the skies of North and South America. However, some aerodynamically inclined experts doubt that such an enormous structure would have been stable in flight--and in any event, if it gave Nyctosaurus such a huge aerodynamic advantage, other pterosaurs of the Cretaceous period would doubtless have evolved their own sails. More likely, this was a sexually selected characteristic, meaning males (or females) with bigger head crests were more attractive to the opposite sex.

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Ornithocheirus

ornithocheirus
Ornithocheirus. Wikimedia Commons

With a wingspan of over 10 feet, Ornithocheirus was one of the largest pterosaurs of the middle Cretaceous period; truly giant members of this flying reptile family didn't appear on the scene until tens of millions of years later. See an in-depth profile of Ornithocheirus

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Peteinosaurus

peteinosaurus
Peteinosaurus. Nobu Tamura

Name:

Peteinosaurus (Greek for "winged lizard"); pronounced peh-TAIN-oh-SORE-us

Habitat:

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period:

Late Triassic (220-210 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of two feet and 3-4 ounces

Diet:

Insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; long tail; relatively large wings

 

Along with Preondactylus and Eudimorphodon, to both of which it was closely related, Peteinosaurus was one of the earliest known pterosaurs, a wee, long-tailed, hummingbird-sized reptile that flew the skies of late Triassic western Europe. Unusually for a "rhamphorhynchoid" pterosaur, the wings of Peteinosaurus were only about twice, rather than three times, as long as its hind legs, though its long tail was otherwise characteristic of the breed. Oddly enough, Peteinosaurus, rather than Eudimorphodon, may have been the direct ancestor of the well-known Jurassic pterosaur Dimorphodon.

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Pteranodon

pteranodon
Pteranodon. Wikimedia Commons

Pteranodon attained wingspans of up to six feet, and its birdlike characteristics included (possibly) webbed feet and a toothless beak. Weirdly, this pterosaur's prominent, foot-long crest was actually attached to its skull! See an in-depth profile of Pteranodon

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of 51
Pterodactylus

pterodactylus
Pterodactylus. Alain Beneteau

Pterodactylus isn't quite the same thing as a "pterodactyl," a made-up name that's often used by Hollywood producers. As pterosaurs go, Pterodactylus wasn't particularly big, with a wingspan of three feet and a weight of 10 pounds, max. See an in-depth profile of Pterodactylus

40
of 51
Pterodaustro

pterodaustro
Pterodaustro. Toledo Zoo

Name:

Pterodaustro (Greek for "southern wing"); pronounced TEH-roe-DAW-stroh

Habitat:

Lakes and seashores of South America

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (140-130 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of four feet and 5-10 pounds

Diet:

Plankton and small crustaceans

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, curved beak with numerous bristlelike teeth

 

The modern bird that's most often compared to the South American Pterodaustro is the flamingo, which this pterosaur closely resembled in appearance, if not in every aspect of its anatomy. Based on its thousand or so distinctive, bristlelike teeth, paleontologists believe that the early Cretaceous Pterodaustro dipped its curved beak into the water to filter out plankton, small crustaceans, and other tiny aquatic creatures. Since shrimp and plankton are predominantly pink, some of these scientists also speculate that Pterodaustro may have had a distinctly pinkish hue, another trait it would have shared with modern flamingos. (By the way, in case you were wondering, pterosaurs weren't directly ancestral to prehistoric birds, which descended instead from small, feathered dinosaurs.)

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Quetzalcoatlus

quetzalcoatlus
Quetzalcoatlus. Nobu Tamura

Quetzalcoatlus was the biggest pterosaur (and the biggest creature of any kind) to take to the sky--although some paleontologists have ventured the theory that it was exclusively terrestrial, hunting prey like a bipedal, carnivorous dinosaur. See 10 Facts About Quetzalcoatlus

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of 51
Rhamphorhynchus

rhamphorhynchus
Rhamphorhynchus. Wikimedia Commons

It may be hard to pronounce, but Rhamphorhynchus looms large in pterosaur evolution, having bestowed its name ("rhamphorhynchoid") on similar flying reptiles of the late Jurassic period equipped with long tails and narrow heads. See an in-depth profile of Rhamphorhynchus

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of 51
Scaphognathus

scaphognathus
Scaphognathus. Senckenberg Museum

Name:

Scaphognathus (Greek for "tub jaw"); pronounced ska-FOG-nah-thuss

Habitat:

Skies of western Europe

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (155-150 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of three feet and a few pounds

Diet:

Probably insects

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; short, blunt skull with a few dozen teeth

 

Closely related to the better known Rhamphorhynchus--the reptile that gave its name to the small-sized, long-tailed "rhamphorhynchoid" branch of the pterosaur family--Scaphognathus was distinguished by its shorter, blunter head and the vertical rather than horizontal orientation of its teeth (16 in the upper jaw and 10 in the lower). Because its fossils were discovered so early--way back in 1831, in Germany's famous Solnhofen fossil beds--Scaphognathus has occasioned some confusion among paleontologists; in the past, some of its species had been mistakenly identified as belonging to Pterodactylus or Rhamphorhynchus, among other genera.

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of 51
Sericipterus

sericipterus
Sericipterus. Nobu Tamura

Name

Sericipterus (Greek for "silk wing"); pronounced SEH-rih-SIP-teh-russ

Habitat

Skies of eastern Asia

Historical Period

Late Jurassic (160 million years ago)

Size and Weight

Wingspan of five feet and a few pounds

Diet

Small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics

Three crests on head; long tail

 

Sericipterus was a classic "rhamphorhynchoid" of the late Jurassic period: this pterosaur was fairly small, with a large head and a long tail, making it similar in appearance to the eponymous member of its breed, Rhamphorhynchus. Unusually for a rhamphorhynchoid, though, Sericipterus had a small crest on top of its skull (in addition to two crests lower down on its snout), perhaps adumbrating the giant head ornaments of the "pterodactyloid" pterosaurs of the ensuing Cretaceous period, and it seems to have been an inland predator, feeding on small animals rather than fish. By the way, the name Sericipterus, Greek for "silk wing," refers to the Silk Road trading route connecting China and the Middle East.

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Sordes

sordes
Sordes. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Sordes (Greek for "devil"); pronounced SORE-dess

Habitat:

Plains of central Asia

Historical Period:

Late Jurassic (150 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 1.5 feet and about one pound

Diet:

Probably insects or small amphibians

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; coat of fur or hairy feathers

 

The most startling thing about the late Jurassic Sordes (which doesn't really deserve its name, which is Greek for "devil") is that it seems to have been covered by a fine coat of fur, or possibly primitive, hair-like feathers. Paleontologists have interpreted this coat as indicating that Sordes had an endothermic (warm-blooded) metabolism, since otherwise it wouldn't have needed to evolve this extra, mammalian layer of insulation. A type of pterosaur known as a rhamphorhynchoid, its closest relative was the eponymous, and slightly bigger, Rhamphorhynchus.

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Tapejara

tapejara
Tapejara. Dmitry Bogdanov

Name:

Tapejara (Tupi for "old being"); pronounced TOP-ay-HAR-ah

Habitat:

Seashores of South America

Historical Period:

Early-Middle Cretaceous (120-100 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of up to 12 feet and weight of up to 80 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Short tail; downward-pointing jaw; large headcrest

 

About Tapejara

It's not only modern South America that breeds brilliantly colored varieties of flying creatures.  Over 100 million years ago, during the middle Cretaceous period, Tapejara graced the seashores of South America with its huge (up to three feet tall) head crest, which was probably brightly colored to attract mates. In common with the more evolved pterosaurs of this period, Tapejara had a relatively short tail, and it likely used its downward-curving beak to pluck fish from the sea. This pterosaur was closely related to the similarly colorful (and similarly named) Tupuxuara, which also flew the skies of South America.

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Thalassodromeus

thalassodromeus
Thalassodromeus. Wikimedia Commons

The crest of Thalassodromeus was interlaced with numerous blood vessels, so it may have been employed for cooling purposes. It may also have been a sexually selected characteristic or a kind of rudder that stabilized this pterosaur in midair flight. See an in-depth profile of Thalassodromeus

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of 51
Tropeognathus

tropeognathus
Tropeognathus. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Tropeognathus (Greek for "keel jaw"); pronounced TROE-peeh-OG-nah-thuss

Historical Period:

Early-Middle Cretaceous (125-100 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 20-25 feet and about 100 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; keel on end of beak

Habitat:

Skies of South America

 

Pterosaurs tend to be represented in the fossil record by frustratingly incomplete and scattered specimens, so it can take a long time for paleontologists to nail down the true identity of any given species. A case in point is Tropeognathus, which had variously been classified as a separate species of Ornithocheirus and Anhanguera before reverting to its original genus name in 2000. Tropeognathus was distinguished by the keel-like structure on the end of its beak, an adaptation that allowed it to hold tight to wriggling fish, and with a wingspan of 20 to 25 feet it was one of the largest pterosaurs of the early to middle Cretaceous period. This once-obscure flying reptile was made famous by a starring role in the BBC TV series Walking with Dinosaurs, though the producers vastly inflated its specs, depicting it with a wingspan of almost 40 feet!

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Tupuxuara

tupuxuara
Tupuxuara. Sergey Krasovskiy

Name:

Tupuxuara (indigenous Indian for "familiar spirit"); pronounced TOO-poo-HWAR-ah

Habitat:

Shores of South America

Historical Period:

Early-Middle Cretaceous (125-115 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of 17 feet and 50-75 pounds

Diet:

Fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; round crest on head

 

During the Cretaceous period, as in the present day, South America spawned more than its share of large, colorful flying creatures. Tupuxuara is a good example: this large pterosaur had a flat, rounded crest on its head that was richly laced with blood vessels, a good hint that the crest may have changed color seasonally and allowed its owner to signal to the opposite sex. Confusingly, the name Tupuxuara is similar to that of another brightly colored pterosaur of the same time and place, Tapejara. In fact, it was once believed that Tupuxuara was a species of Tapejara, but now paleontologists think Tupuxuara may have been more closely related to giant pterosaurs of the later Cretaceous period like Quetzalcoatlus.

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Wukongopterus

wukongopterus
Wukongopterus. Nobu Tamura

Name

Wukongopterus (Greek for "Wukong wing"); pronounced WOO-kong-OP-teh-russ

Habitat

Skies of eastern Asia

Historical Period

Late Jurassic (160 million years ago)

Size and Weight

Wingspan of 2-3 feet and a few pounds

Diet

Small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics

Small size; long neck and tail

 

Wukongopterus had the misfortune of being discovered in the same fossil beds, at roughly the same time, as Darwinopterus, the name of the latter (honoring Charles Darwin) guaranteeing that it would reap all the headlines. The importance of both of these late Jurassic reptiles is that they represent transitional forms between contemporary "rhamphorhynchoid" (small, long-tailed, big-headed) and later "pterodactyloid" (much bigger, shorter-tailed) pterosaurs. Wukongopterus, in particular, had an unusually long neck, and it may also have possessed a membrane between its hind legs technically known as a uropatagium.

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Zhejiangopterus

zhejiangopterus
Zhejiangopterus. Wikimedia Commons

Zhejiangopterus stands out for what it didn't have: any noticeable ornamentation on its head (other giant pterosaurs of the Cretaceous period, like Tapejara and Tupuxuara, sported big, bony crests that may have supported flaps of skin). See an in-depth profile of Zhejiangopterus