What Is a Pterosaur?
Neither birds nor bats, pterosaurs were reptiles, close cousins of dinosaurs who evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family tree. They were also the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight—not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air. They evolved into dozens of species. Some were as large as an F-16 fighter jet, and others as small as a paper airplane.
Scientists have long debated where pterosaurs fit on the evolutionary tree. The leading theory today is that pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and crocodiles are closely related and belong to a group known as archosaurs.
Pterosaurs were an extremely successful group of reptiles. They flourished all through the age of dinosaurs, a period of more than 150 million years. Over time, the earliest pterosaurs—relatively small flying reptiles with sturdy bodies and long tails—evolved into a broad variety of species. Some had long, slender jaws, elaborate head crests, or specialized teeth, and some were extraordinarily large.
Around 66 million years ago, at the same time that Tyrannosaurus rex and other large dinosaurs became extinct, pterosaurs also died out. Pterosaurs left no descendants—only fossils. But not very many fossils, particularly compared to their dinosaur cousins.
Few pterosaurs lived close to the places where fossils tend to form. Their fragile bones preserved poorly, so pterosaur fossils are frequently incomplete. To form a picture of a particular species, paleontologists must often gather information from several fossils, or draw conclusions from related pterosaurs that are better known.
Find out more about these prehistoric flying reptiles in Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.