Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Pterosaurs Worked


Pterosaur Evidence
A good pterosaur fossil is hard to find because the critters' thin, hollow bones didn't typically hold up well during the fossilization process. The ones that do exist tell a fascinating story of how these ancient reptiles flew.
A good pterosaur fossil is hard to find because the critters' thin, hollow bones didn't typically hold up well during the fossilization process. The ones that do exist tell a fascinating story of how these ancient reptiles flew.
Kevin Schafer/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Until paleontologists can figure out how to bring pterosaurs back to life Jurassic Park-style, they'll have to rely on fossils to explain what these creatures were like. And ever since the first discovery of pterosaur remains in the late 18th century, they've been trying to do just that — with varying degrees of success.

See, good pterosaur remains are relatively rare and often incomplete because their light, hollow bones are fragile and not particularly well-suited for the fossilization process. Even when a good specimen is found, it's easily damaged when extracted, transported and prepared. As a result, pterosaurs have presented a particularly challenging puzzle that paleontologists are still trying to piece together [sources: American Museum of Natural History, "Fossils"].

No one is sure exactly who found the first pterosaur skeleton, but it was dug out of a 150-million-year-old limestone layer in Germany sometime between 1767 and 1784 [source: Switek]. The specimen then made its way to Cosimo Alessandro Collini, an Italian natural scientist who didn't really know what to make of it. He incorrectly concluded that its unusually long fourth finger supported a paddle for swimming, though in his defense, the skeleton was found in an ancient lagoon, surrounded by the fossilized remains of oceanic creatures. It wasn't until 1801 that the French naturalist Georges Cuvier figured out that the specimen, which he later named "pterodactyle," didn't have paddles, but wings. Despite this early attention to pterosaurs, paleontologists soon lost interest in the creatures as fossils proved scarce and were poorly understood [sources: Monastersky, Switek].

By the 1970s, modern theories and techniques brought pterosaurs back into the spotlight. While paleontologists had long suspected that the flying reptiles were fish eaters, new research suggested they were a lot less picky, with diets that also included tiny freshwater invertebrates and even small dinosaurs. Discoveries of nesting sites and fossilized eggs showed that pterosaurs likely congregated in groups and laid soft-sided eggs that they buried for protection. One egg, discovered in 2004, even had an unhatched little pterosaur in it! From that find, paleontologists were able to determine that these creatures were probably able to take care of themselves and even fly shortly after they hatched. Oh, and the head crests? Those may have been unique to males [sources: Switek, Unwin, Than].

Clearly, there's been a lot of exciting research, but stay tuned for more: One paleontologist has declared the 21st century the "golden age of pterosaur research."