Pterodactyl Facts



Modified: 31 May 2023


Pterodactyls have quite an iconic reputation among prehistoric animals, thanks to their ability to fly. This made them stand out, when at that time, only insects could fly. Ironically, pterodactyls actually remain one of the more mysterious dinosaurs we know about today. Learn more about these prehistoric animals with these 30 pterodactyl facts.

  1. Scientists have discovered an estimated 30 fossilized pterodactyl specimens so far.
  2. Pterodactyls had an estimate of 90 teeth.
  3. Some pterodactyl species featured bony crests up to 46 mm long on their heads.
  4. However, these crests typically only had a height of around 1 mm.
  5. Pterodactyls measured around 1 meter from the tip of one wing to the tip of their other wing.
  1. Humans first discovered pterodactyls fossils in 1779.
  2. Cosimo Collini first described pterodactyls in 1784.
  3. Scientists at the time actually thought pterodactyls had an aquatic lifestyle.
  4. Johann Hermann first considered pterodactyls as flight-capable creatures in 1800, but saw them as a form of bat.
  5. Georges Cuvier agreed with Hermann, but disagreed that pterodactyls counted as mammals.
  6. Cuvier also became the first to use the name pterodactyl in 1809.
  7. Samuel von Sommering continued to support the idea of pterodactyls as mammals in 1810.
  8. Cuvier countered von Sommering’s position in 1812.
  9. Only a minority of scientists still thought of pterodactyls as aquatic by 1830.
  10. Pterodactyl fossils incorrectly thought to belong to a crustacean, became correctly recognized in 1856.
  1. Most pterodactyl fossils come from Bavaria in Germany.
  2. Pterodactyl fossils usually lie near those of Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus.
  3. Scientists also found Ichthyosaur fossils nearby.
  4. Other fossils nearby also belonged to prehistoric crocodiles, turtles, and fish.
  5. Scientists have even found rare jellyfish fossils nearby.
Table of Contents

Pterodactyls don’t actually count as dinosaurs.

They’re actually reptiles, part of the order of flying reptiles that scientists have named the pterosaurs. This stands in contrast to dinosaurs, which have formed a separate group of their own. Eventually, they evolved into modern birds. Also in contrast to dinosaurs, pterosaurs had cold-blooded metabolisms, while dinosaurs had warm-blooded metabolisms. That said, pterosaurs do have the distinction of evolving as the first flight-capable vertebrates.

Pterodactyls had a curious appearance.

They had long and thin heads, along with small bodies that stood up to just below a man’s knee. The most curious part of their appearance, however, involved their wings, which resembled those of bats rather than those of birds. Specifically, a membrane of skin and muscle stretching from their elongated fourth fingers, down to their hind limbs. This makes it a point of debate whether pterodactyls could actually fly, or if they just glided on the wind similar to bats.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Fossil evidence has allowed scientists to trace a pterodactyl’s early life history.

The youngest pterodactyl fossils discovered so far tended to have very small sizes, with skulls between 15 to 45 mm long. Scientists discovered that these fossils belonged to pterodactyls around a year old. These very young pterodactyls also had very few teeth, only 15 compared to an adult’s 90 teeth.

Other fossils dated to belong to 2-year-old pterodactyls have grown, with skulls up to 95 mm long. Scientists have also dated fossils belonging to 3-year-old pterodactyls, but signs of growth remain on the fossils. This has led scientists to wonder if any adult pterodactyl fossils actually exist, with the search continuing to this day. 

They’ve also managed to figure out the pterodactyl’s breeding behavior.

Scientists think pterodactyls reproduced seasonally, with one batch of pterodactyl hatchlings having grown to juveniles by the time the next batch hatches. The scientists also think that pterodactyls may have had mating practices and breeding cycles similar to those of modern crocodiles.

Scientists have also deduced other aspects of the pterodactyl’s behavior.

Studies of their skulls and their eye cavities have led scientists to think pterodactyls stayed active in the day and slept at night. This makes them stand out compared to other pterosaurs, which scientists think have had nocturnal habits instead. Pterodactyls also seemed to have had a carnivorous diet, preying on small mammals and invertebrates.

Many species once counted as pterodactyls.

So much so, that scientists once described pterodactyls as a wastebasket taxon. This came from the habit of classifying all flight-capable animals from the Late Triassic to Cretaceous Periods as pterodactyls. It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists began sorting out all the species once grouped together as pterodactyls. Today, only one species remains classified as a pterodactyl, Pterodactylus antiquus.

Pterodactyl Facts, Rhamphorhynchus Fossil
Image source: Zissoudisctrucker from Wikipedia

Controversy surrounds two possible pterodactyl species.

Specifically, Pterodactylus kochi and Pterodactylus scolopaciceps. Supporters of the two species base their support on differences in their backbones, teeth and skull structure, and even the arrangement of teeth. Critics, however, dismiss these differences as the typical variations between individuals. Instead, they argue that the two proposed species actually just include fossils of Pterodactylus antiquus.

Pterodactyls have a place in popular culture.

In fact, while scientists have since properly organized the various pterosaur species, most people would still call them all pterodactyls. This became very visible in the 2005 film Pterodactyl, even if pteranodons actually appear on the screen instead of pterodactyls. Even scientists can’t argue against this and have admitted it’s simply the result of how iconic the pterodactyls have become. It’s also similar to how the T-Rex has become the shared nickname of not just the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but also its sibling species.

They’ve also influenced the famous Lord of the Rings setting.

In both the original novels and the film, the Ringwraiths eventually start riding flying reptiles. J.R.R. Tolkien’s editor, his son Christopher, described them as Nazgul birds. In fact, in his original notes, J.R.R. Tolkien outright admitted drawing on pterodactyls as inspiration for the beasts. 

People commonly confuse pterodactyls with pteranodon.

That said, the two species have many differences between them. For one thing, pterodactyls evolved earlier, specifically, during the Jurassic Period. In contrast, pteranodon evolved during the Cretaceous Period, by which time, pterodactyls had already gone extinct. Pteranodon also grew much bigger, standing as tall as an average man, with wingspans of up to 4 meters.

Pterodactyl Facts, Pteranodon Fossil
Image source: IJReid from Wikipedia