Reconstruction of Pterodactylus

Pterodactylus was a pterosaur from Jurassic Europe. It was the first pterosaur to be identified and described. It is usually mistaken for a Pteranodon


Pterodactylus is known from a number of specimens both complete and incomplete. It was a fairly small pterosaur, with an estimated wingspan of 1.5 meters at maturity.[1] The long skulls of Pterodactylus contain conical teeth, and have a small hooked beak at the end of the jaws.[2] Like related pterosaurs, it had a small crest on the back of its head that became more developed as the animal got older.[3] Pterodactylus also had a throat pouch that extended from the lower jaw to the upper part of the neck.[4]

The wings of Pterodactylus were long, and were accompanied by a uropatagium and propatagium in addition to the standard wing membrane.


The name Pterodactyli was used to classify Pterodactylus and similar pterosaurs during the 1800s, which was later amended as the family Pterodactylidae in 1838. Pterodactylidae is the most commonly used name for the family, although it has been suggested by recent studies that it might be an unnatural grouping.[5]

Numerous species of Pterodactylus have been described over the years, due to the fact that it was used as a "wastebasket taxon" to name any form of pterosaur. Currently, only the type species Pterodactylus antiquus is seen as valid, although more than 20 different species have been named and subsequently discarded.[6]


The first specimen of Pterodactylus was described by the Italian Cosimo Alessandro Collini in 1784 from the Solnhofen limestone in Bavaria, Germany. The specimen was likely donated to Collini by a Pappenheim count around 1780.[7] Collini speculated that the animal was a sea creature, as he thought that the deep ocean was more likely to contain unknown species of animals.[8] In later years, many other scientists adopted his theory of aquatic pterosaurs.[9]

Hermann's Pterodactylus

Johann Hermann's 1800 restoration of Pterodactylus as a bat-like creature

The German scientist Johann Hermann contacted the French anatomist Georges Cuvier about the fossil, believing that it had been captured by Napoleon's army and sent to France. Hermann, who did not think the animal was aquatic, sent Cuvier a letter which contained the first life restoration of a pterosaur, which depicted Pterodactylus as a flying mammal rather like a bat. Cuvier agreed with the reconstruction and in 1800 published a very short description of the animal.[10] However, he believed it was a reptile instead of a mammal.

Despite Hermann's assumptions, the fossil had not been taken by the French at all. Instead, in 1802 it had been brought to Munich, where Johann Paul Carl von Moll had obtained it. Cuvier asked von Moll to study the fossil, but it could not be found. In 1809 Cuvier published a longer description of the animal and named it Petro-Dactyle.[11] This was later discovered to be a typographical error, and Cuvier corrected it to Ptéro-Dactyle.[12]

The specimen was not actually missing, but was being studied by Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring. He described the fossil in 1812, giving it the name of Ornithocephalus antiquus.[13] von Sömmerring described it as being a form rather like both a mammal and a bird, but Cuvier disagreed, and published another description of the animal the same year.[14]

However, since Cuvier described the animal first, his genus name takes precedence. Applying the modern rules of zoological nomenclature, the valid name became Ptéro-Dactyle antiquus. In addition, the name Ornithocephalus already belongs to a genus of modern orchid, and no two organisms can possess the same scientific name.[15] The genus name was Latinized to Pterodactylus in 1815 by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, the name we use today. Unaware of this, Cuvier himself Latinized the name and gave it the new species of Pterodactylus longirostris, but Rafinesque's name takes precedence.[16]

In 1817, a second specimen of Pterodactylus was discovered in the same Bavarian quarry. The fossil, now known to be a juvenile of P. antiquus, was described by von Sömmerring as Ornithocephalus brevirostris. He provided a resoration of the remains which, though inaccurate, was the first published skeletal reconstruction of any pterosaur.[17] von Sömmerring firmly believed that these animals were mammalian, and that they were furred and warm-blooded. Although Pterodactylus and its kin were confirmed to be reptilian, von Sömmerring's physiological assumptions would remain influential throughout the coming years, especially during the "Dinosaur Renaissance" of the 1970s.



Pterodactylus specimens are found in a wide variety of sizes. The smallest individuals (whose skulls measure from 15 to 45 millimeters in length) were likely less than a year old and had only just begun to fly.[18]

Daily activity patternsEdit

By comapring the scleral rings of Pterodactylus to modern birds and reptiles, it has been determined that it may have been a diurnal creature, an example of niche partitioning with contemporary pterosaurs that are believed to have been nocturnal (such as Rhamphorhynchus).[19]


  1. Bennett, S.C. (1996). "Year-classes of pterosaurs from the Solnhofen Limestone of Germany: Taxonomic and Systematic Implications". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 16 (3): 432–444. doi:10.1080/02724634.1996.10011332.
  2. Frey, E., Tischilinger, H., Buchy, M.-C. and Martill, D.M. (2003). "New specimens of Pterosauria (Reptilia) with soft partes with implications for pterosaurian anatomy and locomotion. In: Buffetaut, E. and Mazin, J.-M. (eds.)". Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs (London: Geological Society) 217: 233–266.
  3. Bennett, S. Christopher (2013). "New information on body size and cranial display structures of Pterodactylus antiquus, with a revision of the genus". Paläontologische Zeitschrift. in press. doi:10.1007/s12542-012-0159-8.
  4. Frey, E., and Martill, D.M. (1998). "Soft tissue preservation in a specimen of Pterodactylus kochi (Wagner) from the Upper Jurassic of Germany". Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen 210: 421–441.
  5. Kellner, A.W.A. (2003). "Pterosaur phylogeny and comments on the evolutionary history of the group", pp. 105–137 in Buffetaut, E. and Mazin, J.-M., (eds.) (2003), Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs. Geological Society of London, Special Publications 217, London: 1–347.
  6. Bennett, S. Christopher (2006). "Juvenile specimens of the pterosaur Germanodactylus cristatus, with a review of the genus". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26 (4): 872–878. doi:10.1671/0272-4634(2006)26[872:JSOTPG]2.0.CO;2.
  7. Brougham, H.P. (1844). Dialogues on instinct; with analytical view of the researches on fossil osteology. Volume 19 of Knight's weekly vol.
  8. Collini, C A. (1784). "Sur quelques Zoolithes du Cabinet d’Histoire naturelle de S. A. S. E. Palatine & de Bavière, à Mannheim." Acta Theodoro-Palatinae Mannheim 5 Pars Physica, pp. 58–103 (1 plate).
  9. Wagler, J. (1830). Natürliches System der Amphibien Munich, 1830: 1–354.
  10. Cuvier, G. (1801). "[Reptile volant]. In: Extrait d'un ouvrage sur les espèces de quadrupèdes dont on a trouvé les ossemens dans l'intérieur de la terre". Journal de Physique, de Chimie et d'Histoire Naturelle 52: 253–267.
  11. Cuvier, G. (1809). "Mémoire sur le squelette fossile d'un reptile volant des environs d'Aichstedt, que quelques naturalistes ont pris pour un oiseau, et dont nous formons un genre de Sauriens, sous le nom de Petro-Dactyle". Annales du Muséum national d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris 13: 424–437.
  12. Taquet, P., and Padian, K. (2004). "The earliest known restoration of a pterosaur and the philosophical origins of Cuvier's Ossemens Fossiles". Comptes Rendus Palevol 3 (2): 157–175. doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2004.02.002.
  13. von Sömmerring, S. T. (1812). "Über einen Ornithocephalus oder über das unbekannten Thier der Vorwelt, dessen Fossiles Gerippe Collini im 5. Bande der Actorum Academiae Theodoro-Palatinae nebst einer Abbildung in natürlicher Grösse im Jahre 1784 beschrieb, und welches Gerippe sich gegenwärtig in der Naturalien-Sammlung der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München befindet", Denkschriften der königlichen bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, München: mathematisch-physikalische Classe 3: 89–158
  14. Cuvier, G. (1812). Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles. I ed. p. 24, tab. 31
  15. W. Mark Whitten, Norris H. Williams and Mark W. Chase (2000). "Subtribal and generic relationships of Maxillarieae (Orchidaceae) with emphasis on Stanhopeinae: combined molecular evidence". American Journal of Botany (American Journal of Botany, Vol. 87, No. 12) 87 (12): 1842–1856. doi:10.2307/2656837. JSTOR 2656837. PMID 11118422. - on line here
  16. Cuvier, G., 1819, (Pterodactylus longirostris) in Isis von Oken, 1126 und 1788, Jena
  17. Sömmering, T. v. (1817). "Über einen Ornithocephalus brevirostris der Vorwelt". Denkschr. Kgl. Bayer Akad. Wiss., math.phys. Cl. 6: 89–104.
  18. Wellnhofer, P. (1970). Die Pterodactyloidea (Pterosauria) der Oberjura-Plattenkalke Siiddeutschlands. Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-Wissenschaftlichen Klasse, Abhandlungen, 141: 133 pp.
  19. Schmitz, L.; Motani, R. (2011). "Nocturnality in Dinosaurs Inferred from Scleral Ring and Orbit Morphology". Science 332 (6030): 705–8. doi:10.1126/science.1200043. PMID 21493820.