Archosaurs: Pterosaurs

More than 200 species of pterosaurs have been described, and in their day, beginning about 230 million years ago, they were the undisputed rulers of the Mesozoic skies for over 170 million years. Recent fossils suggest that hundreds of pterosaur species may have lived during any given period, dividing up the environment much like birds do today. Pterosaurs came in amazing sizes and shapes, ranging in size from that of a small song bird to that of the enormous Quetzalcoatlus northropi, which stood nearly 6 meters (19 feet) high and had a wingspan of nearly 14 meters (40 feet). This monstrous pterosaur, named after the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered flying serpent that contributed largely to the creation of humankind, may have been the largest flying animal that ever evolved!

Some male pterosaurs apparently had brightly colored crests that may have served in sexual displays; some of these crests were much higher than the actual head! Pterosaurs had ultralight skeletons, with a pteroid bone, unique to pterosaurs, that strengthened the forewing membrane. Much of their wing span was exaggerated by a greatly elongated fourth finger that supported perhaps half of the wing. It is tempting to relate to them in terms of bird characteristics, but in reality, their proportions were decidedly not like birds at all. For example, it is common to find specimens, such as Quetzalcoatlus, with a head and neck region that together was three to four times as large as the torso. In addition, unlike the feathered bird wing, the reptilian wing had a layer of muscles, connective tissue, and blood vessels, all reinforced with a webbing of fibrous cords.

In contrast to the aerial pterosaurs, the dinosaurs were a diverse group of terrestrial reptiles with more than 1,000 species classified to date. Paleontologists continue to discover new species of dinosaurs. Some dinosaurs were quadrupeds (Figure); others were bipeds. Some were carnivorous, whereas others were herbivorous. Dinosaurs laid eggs, and a number of nests containing fossilized eggs, with intact embryos, have been found. It is not known with certainty whether dinosaurs were homeotherms or facultative endotherms. However, given that modern birds are endothermic, the dinosaurs that were the immediate ancestors to birds likely were endothermic as well. Some fossil evidence exists for dinosaurian parental care, and comparative biology supports this hypothesis since the archosaur birds and crocodilians both display extensive parental care.

The illustration shows a dinosaur that walks on four legs, has a long tail, and an armored back.
Ornithischian and saurischian Dinosaurs. Edmontonia was an armored dinosaur that lived in the Late Cretaceous period, 145.5 to 65.6 million years ago. Herrerrasaurus and Eoraptor (b) were late Triassic saurischian dinosaurs dating to about 230 million years ago. (credit: a Mariana Ruiz Villareal b Zach Tirrell from Plymouth, USA, Dino Origins)

Dinosaurs dominated the Mesozoic era, which was known as the “Age of Reptiles.” The dominance of dinosaurs lasted until the end of the Cretaceous, the last period of the Mesozoic era. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction resulted in the loss of most of the large-bodied animals of the Mesozoic era. Birds are the only living descendants of one of the major clades of theropod dinosaurs.

Link to Learning

Visit this site to see a video discussing the hypothesis that an asteroid caused the Cretaceous-Triassic (KT) extinction.