Why Pterosaurs Were the Weirdest Wonders on Wings

New discoveries are changing long-held views of the biggest, meanest, and most bizarre animals that ever flew.

That’s the common name given to the first pterosaur discovered in the 18th century. Scientists have since described more than 200 pterosaur species, but popular notions about pterosaurs—the winged dragons that ruled Mesozoic skies for 162 million years—have remained stuck. We invariably imagine them as pointy-headed, leather-winged, clumsily aerial reptilians, with murderous proclivities.

Take a look, for example, at the 1966 film One Million Years B.C., in which a squawking, lavender pterosaur carries Raquel Welch off to feed the nestlings. (Spoiler alert: She lives.) For an update, turn to 2015’s Jurassic World, and you’ll find that pterosaurs are still plucking humans skyward, the sad lot of the perennially typecast. (A minor point: The last pterosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, eons before the first humans showed up at the party.)

But a rush of fossil discoveries has brought to light surprising new pterosaur shapes, sizes, and behaviors. Some paleontologists now suspect that hundreds of pterosaur species may have lived at any one time, dividing up habitats much as modern birds do. Their world included monsters like Quetzalcoatlus northropi, one of the largest flying animals yet discovered, nearly as tall as a giraffe, with a 35-foot wingspan and a likely penchant for picking off baby dinosaurs. But it also included pterosaurs the size of sparrows that flitted through primeval forests and may have fed on insects, large pterosaurs that stayed on the wing across oceans for days at a time like albatrosses, and pterosaurs that stood in briny shallows and filter fed like pink flamingos.

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