Pterodactyl fossilPterodactyl fossilPterosaurs were flying reptiles. They first took to the air in the Triassic Period, and proceeded to dominate the skies for nearly 100 million years. They had wings formed by flaps of skin stretching from their extremely long fourth fingers to their feet or tails. The wings were stiffened by layers of fibres, called actinofibrils. Their bones were hollow, making the animals very light. Some had tails which helped them steer in the air. Pterosaurs were powerful flyers but clumsy on the ground, preferring to roost in trees or on cliff ledges. Many had powerful, toothed beaks, perfect for seizing fish. There were two main types of pterosaur: the long-tailed rhamphorhynchs and the short-tailed pterodactyls.

Body covering

Dimorphodon, showing its coat of Dimorphodon, showing its coat of "fur"Some pterosaurs had soft, downy "fur", called pycnofibres, covering their bodies. This helped the reptiles to keep warm—essential if pterosaurs were warm-blooded, like birds and humans. Warm-blooded animals create heat within their bodies and keep their body temperature constant. For those pterosaurs that did not have a fur covering, they may have needed to bask in the sun for a while, in order to build up enough heat energy to fly.

Animation of pterosaurs in flightAnimation of pterosaurs in flightClick to play video


Smaller pterosaurs, like Tapejara, used their wings to power themselves forwards and to manoeuvre quickly in the air. They could control their height and speed when flying, enabling them to dive down and snatch fish from the water with great accuracy.

Pterosaurs flying over the seaPterosaurs flying over the seaLarge pterosaurs, such as Ornithocheirus, used their huge wings to soar above the ocean, gliding on warm air currents rising up from the water. They could cover hundreds of kilometres like this without ever having to flap their wings.

ConsultantChris Jarvis

See also in Prehistoric

Pterosaurs are often described as flying dinosaurs, but this is incorrect. Dinosaurs were a distinct group of non-flying prehistoric reptiles.

Pterosaurs are also often referred to "pterodactyls", but this is also incorrect. The pterodactyl group is just one group of pterosaurs—those with short tails.

Many pterosaurs had huge eye sockets, indicating that their eyes were large and their eyesight sharp. This would have enabled them to spot prey on land or at sea from high in the air.

Some pterosaurs could dive at speeds of up to 120 km/h (75 mph).

Tapejara, Tupuxuara and other pterosaurs had colourful crests that they could raise and lower at will. Males probably used them in courtship displays to attract mates or to ward off rivals.

Plataleorhynchus scooped water with its spoon-shaped beak as it flew low over lakes and rivers, sieving out tiny particles of food through its closely spaced teeth.

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