When pterosaurs thrived, the world would have looked like a very different place. The climate was warmer, almost subtropical. And the Solnhofen archipelago in modern-day Bavaria, Germany, was home to various flying reptiles.
In the late Jurassic period, 145 million years ago, they would have lived alongside a feathered dinosaur named Alcomonavis as well as a small predator called Compsognathus. But for the most part, the archipelago was home to a plethora of these ancient flying beasts. One species in particular, known as Petrodactyle wellnhoferi, would have stood out from the rest.
(Credit: Skye McDavid, CC BY 4.0 /Paleontological Society)
Reconstruction of the complete skeleton of Petrodactyle wellnhoferi in a standing pose. Scale bar is 200 mm. Missing parts based on Cycnorhamphus following Witton (2013).
A recent study published in the June 2023 edition of the journal Paleontologia Electronica documented the discovery of the species, which was larger than most pterosaurs found at the time and, perhaps more importantly, had a sizable head feature that has given it the nickname “Elvis.” The species’ “very prominent cranial crest” was likely used for “social signaling” for mating and other social roles.
“Its big head crest made it stand out,” says study author David Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London.
The specimen, which is the only one of its kind to have been discovered of late, was found in a thick slab of limestone. While some portions of it are poorly preserved, the wings, skull, seven vertebrae and part of one foot are impressive.
Its wingspan was just around six feet, which, though it was large for the period, was much smaller than the pterosaurs that would come later. “It still had some growing to do and was small compared to some of the later pterosaurs,” says Hone. Quetzalcoatlus, for example, the largest animal to ever fly, would have had a wingspan of around 40 feet, about the size of a small plane. Pterosaurs grew larger throughout the age of dinosaurs.
According to Natalia Jagielska, a Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh studying the evolution of Jurassic pterosaurs, the species is part of a group of Ctenochasmatoids that lived on coastal islands. They had long legs and some filter-feeding capabilities. They were “a pterosaur’s equivalent to flamingoes,” Jagielska says.
P. wellnhoferi’s legs were stilted, “probably used to wade in waters when searching for food.” Its jaws, which were found in good condition, had an interesting arrangement of teeth, short and sharp. And though its jaw was on the delicate and lanky side, “it was a capable predator,” says Jagielska. The carnivore likely fed on fish, crustaceans and tiny dinosaurs. She adds that its “anchored musculature” is likely responsible for a strong bite force — meaning there was little escaping once it found its prey.
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It’s not clear why P. wellnhoferi’ went extinct because only one specimen has been found. And we know that during the 150 million years that pterosaurs roamed the skies, many of them would go extinct and start anew. They were an enduring lineage that ranged in size from that of a small bird to the size of a fighter jet, and they lived as long as the dinosaurs.
The only thing that we know for sure is that pterosaurs, which were a close cousin to dinosaurs, all went extinct 65 million years ago when an asteroid barreled into Earth. Large pterosaurs would likely have run out of prey big enough to sustain them, and smaller pterosaurs would have been competing directly with birds. And in the end, birds somehow won the battle for survival.