Pterosaurs Pterosaurs. © Mark Witton, University of Portsmouth.

Dr. Dave Martill
University of Portsmouth

What are pterosaurs?

Flying reptiles, sometimes called pterodactyls, pterosaurs are ‘volant ornithodirans’. Although closely related, they are not actually dinosaurs. We know that they were coloured and that some had patterns of stripes on their head-crests, but as of yet we don’t know what colours they were. The smallest pterosaurs had wingspans of 30-40cm when adult, about the same size as a thrush. However, some of them achieved gigantic sizes, with a wing span of up to 10-11 metres - that is the same wingspan as a Spitfire!

How many different species are there?

So far more than 100 species have been discovered, and we are still finding more – almost as many pterosaur species have been discovered in the last twenty years as in the previous two hundred.

What did they eat?

The diet varied among the different types of pterosaur. Many of them lived on a marine diet, and while most of these ate fish, some ate tiny zooplankton. The pterosaur Istiodactylus (sail-finger), which once flew above the skies of the UK and was discovered on the Isle of Wight, had a ring of sharp, flat, conical teeth resembling a cookie-cutter, which it probably used to take bites of meat out of its prey. Other pterosaur food sources include insects and possibly even seeds and shellfish.

When did they live?

Pterosaurs inhabited the Earth for around 160 million years, first appearing in the Late Triassic period, about 215 million years ago. The last of the pterosaurs died out 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period. The last of the larger dinosaurs (including Tyrannosaurus rex) were also wiped out in this mass extinction.