Flying Dinosaur Types – What Were They? (Names, Wingspan)


Basel-pterosaurs-glided-over-ancient-oceans-AdventureDinosaurs

The prehistoric inland coastal areas were full of life during the Mesozoic Era. Dinosaurs and reptiles of multiple classifications existed for millions of years. I often think about what filled the prehistoric skies during this time, and it inevitably leads me to ask, what kind of flying dinosaur types existed during those millions of years?

Paleontologists have discovered many types of flying dinosaurs. Actually, flying reptiles is a more proper term, and we can discover how they differed from each other and understand their ancestors with the help of modern classification systems.

So what are the main flying dinosaur types? It is more accurate to describe them as flying reptiles. The main types are Pterosaurs that are non-Pterodyctloid (known as Basal) and Pterosaurs that came at a later stage. All of them are Archosaurs with clades formed under the Pterosauromorpha classification. There are over 1000 fossils found and identified by paleontologists, using modern taxonomy and cladograms. The most well-known flying dinosaur types are Pteranodon, Pterodactyl, Rhamphorhynchus, Dimorphodon, and Quetzalcoatlus. 

Pterosaurs, both basal and later stage, existed during all three periods of the Mesozoic Era. However, as mentioned, they were not flying dinosaurs. They were close cousins of the dinosaurs and more correctly termed as flying reptiles. Dinosaurs lacked the anatomy and wing structure to be able to fly. There are other key anatomical reasons and linkages to ancestors that keep flying reptiles out of being a dinosaur. 

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Some pterosaur fossils are well preserved. Paleontologists have found nearly 1500 fossils, but not all are as well preserved as this one – AdventureDinosaurs

Even though scientists found and classified fossil remains of close to 1500 Pterosaurs, they estimate that there are hundreds or more, which are new species still left to be found. The diversity of size, habitat, flying ability, diet, and additionally, the visual features makes learning about these flying reptiles even more exciting. Read on to find out more about these prehistoric flying creatures.

I’ve researched information to write this article from many sources – multiple internet sites and magazines. However, some of the best reference knowledge is from books. If you are interested in checking out the best dinosaur books for adults on Amazon, you can find them by clicking here: Best Dinosaur Books for Adults

Flying Dinosaur Types – A Look At the Classifications and Clades

Scientific classification or taxonomy helps understand animals by classifying them into groups based on similar characteristics, thereby identifying different types. It is based on the Linnaean classification, which was first used and developed by Carl Linnaeus in 1735.

Modern classification adds clades (groups) or cladograms (developed starting in the 1930s), which group animals based on their ancestor. For flying dinosaur types, cladograms are especially helpful because these flying reptiles are extinct, and it organizes the clades according to fossil remains, taking into consideration their ancestors. Let’s take a closer look!

Classification Overview of Flying Dinosaurs

Flying reptiles are Archosaurs. They are not dinosaurs but are related to them. To understand flying reptiles, it’s useful to look at the classification of Archosaurs (Source). Archosaurs of the clade Avemetatarsalia (from Nesbitt 2011 and 2017) have the clade Orinthodira, which branches out into two separate clades of Dinosauromorpha and Pterosauromorpha. It is here that you can start to understand how dinosaurs and flying reptiles are related. 

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The Pteranodon is a well-known flying reptile that had a long wingspan allowing them to glide through prehistoric skies – AdventureDinosaurs

In Figure 1, the classification of Archosaurs and the two branched clades of Dinosauromorpha and Pterosauromorpha are shown. The Dinosauromorpha clade has all the dinosaurs grouped, and the Pterosuromorpha clade has grouped all the flying reptiles. Interestingly, modern-day birds are in the clade of Dinosauromorpha and, as such, closely related to dinosaurs (Source). 

Figure 1 Classification of Archosaurs - AdventureDinosaurs (2)
Figure 3 – Classfication of Archosauria leading to Pterosauria. On the left side you can see the relation to dinosaurs – AdventureDinosaurs

Basal Pterosaur Clades

On the basis of their size, ancestry, and features, the pterosaurs are generally divided into two main groups. The first type is called basal pterosaurs and second, later pterosaurs or just pterosaurs. We can say that the basal pterosaurs were the ancestors of later pterosaurs. Modern classification with cladograms also keeps this grouping as all are classified under Pterosauria, and the clades up to Pterodactyloidea are basal.

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Basal pterosaurs had sharp teeth on their beak and a long tail. Their wings were shorter than later pterosaurs – AdventureDinosaurs

Basal Pterosaurs were the first flying reptiles and lived from the Triassic period up until the late-Cretaceous period’s mass extinction event. Although most of them had toothed jaws and snouts, it is not the main differentiator between the later Pterosaurs. The wingspan and larger brain cavity (scientists think this indicates advanced flying ability) were key differences between basal and later pterosaurs.

Figure 2 Classification of Pterosauria - AdventureDinosaurs
Figure 2 – Classification of Pterosauria which outlines the clades that are basal pterosaurs and later pterosaurs – AdventureDinosaurs

Later Pterosaur Clades

The later Pterosaurs are grouped under two clade branches, the Archaeopterodactyloidea and Eupterodactyloidea. In the Archeopterodactyloidea clade, you can find the Pterodactylus, Pteranodon, and Quetzalcoatlus, which are the more commonly known flying reptiles and what many people think of when talking about a “flying dinosaur” or reptile. From a classification perspective, they are also known as pterodactyloid. 

In Figure 3, a simplified clade diagram is shown outlining the Archaeopterodactyloidea and Eupterodactyloidea clades. 

Figure 3 Classification of Pterodactyloidea - AdventureDinosaurs
Figure 3 – Classification of Pterodactyloidea with clades – AdventureDinosaurs

The later pterosaurs were noticeably larger, had more variety in the crest (length, height, or shape), and the wingspans were much larger as well, which enabled gliding for long distances. In terms of the skull differences, the snouts were more elongated (longer), and there were some without teeth. These flying reptiles lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, again going extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. 

YouTube Video of Azhdarchidae Pterosaur named “Dracula”

Watch a YouTube video of one of the largest found pterosaur fossils, a Azhdarchidae (see Figure 3 classification)

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Names of Flying Dinosaurs

As mentioned earlier, there have been about 1500 fossil discoveries of flying reptiles since the 18th century. It’s amazing what paleontologists discovered and how they were able to find so much information about them, often from partial skeletons or fragments. I’ve already gone over the classification and clades, now let’s get more concrete with names of pterosaurs and light descriptions. I’ll use the cladogram structure and keep the names as basal pterosaurs and later pterosaurs.

Basal Pterosaurs – Non-Pterodactyloid

In Table 1, we have a list of seven basal pterosaurs. In the first column is the name, in the second column, a description of identifying features or characteristics and the time period it lived. Lastly, I list where the fossils of the flying reptile were found. 

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Pterosaurs were hunters in the sky – AdventureDinosaurs

Table 1 - Names of Basel or Non-Pterodactyloid Flying Reptiles

Name Identifying Feature or Characteristic and Time PeriodWhere Fossil Found
DimorphodonTwo types of teeth in its jaws. Lived during the Jurassic periodUK, Mexico
RhamphorhynchusA long-tailed pterosaur. Lived during the Jurassic periodEngland, Spain, Portugal, Germany Tanzania
Arcticodactylus The smallest pterosaur known, with an estimated wingspan of 24 cm and also had the least amount of teeth. Lived during the Late Triassic periodGreenland
CampylognathoidesA long-tailed pterosaur that had a short snout in comparison to other species. The teeth were also smaller, much like fangs. Lived during the Triassic periodGermany
SordesA pterosaur with short wings and had the wing membranes attached to the legs. Lived during the late-JurassicKazakhstan
PterorhynchusA pterosaur that had a long skull with a crest and also a long tail. Wingspan of about 33 inches or 85 cm. Lived during the mid-JurassicInner Mongolia, China
AnurognathusA small pterosaur that is know for not having a tail, unlike other pterosaurs. Had a rounded skull and snout. Lived during the Jurassic periodGermany
Name Identifying Feature or Characteristic and Time PeriodWhere Fossil Found

The Pterodactyloids Names

In Table 2, it follows the same structure as Table 1 and shows the later pterosaurs. 

Table 2 - Names of Pterodactyloid Flying Reptiles

NameIdentifying Feature or Characteristic and Time PeriodWhere Fossil Found
Pterodactylus antiquusThe name of the first pterosaur genus that was named and identified as a flying reptile. Commonly known as pterodactyls. Lived during the Jurassic periodGermany
PterodaustroA later type of pterosaur that had a long skull, large eye sockets and teeth that served to strain small creatures from the water. Did not have teeth like other pterosaurs. Lived during the Cretaceous periodArgentina, Chile
MoganopterusA later pterosaur that had the largest skull of any pterosaur that was toothed. It had a unique crest and skull formation. Lived during the early Cretaceous periodChina
PteranodonAlmost 1200 fossils of this later pterosaur have been found. Long wingspan, toothless beaks, and the crest that was made of bone. Lived during the late Cretaceous periodUSA - Kansas, Alabama, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota
IstiodactylusA later pterosaur that was large, with a shorter skull and a bit broader compared to other pterosaurs. It had 48 interlocked teeth. Lived during the early Cretaceous periodUK
QuetzalcoatlusA later pterosaur that was the largest known flying animal and flying reptile. It had a sharp and pointed beak and also a crest on the skull. Computer modeling estimated it could reach a speed of 80 mph / 130 km per hour. Wing span was 36-39ft (11-12 meters). Lived during the late Cretaceous periodUSA - Texas
TupandactylusA later pterosaur that had a large crest made of bone and arched over the head. In some species, it also had a long crest like the Pteranodon. Lived during the early Cretaceous periodBrazil
Name Identifying Feature or Characteristic and Time PeriodWhere Fossil Found

Wing Span Sizes, Other Anatomical Characteristics, and Other Interesting Facts

The pterosaurs had marked their presence for the first time about 228 million years ago in the Mesozoic era at the late Triassic period, along with dinosaurs. During that time, they had roamed the earth for more than 150 million years, and they disappeared from the earth about 66 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. 

One of the striking features of pterosaurs is their wingspan. The largest pterosaurs had huge wingspans and were designed for gliding long distances. However, there was also a large variation in the shape of the skull and the crest. 

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Quetzalcoatlus was the largest pterosaur and lived in present-day Argentina – AdventureDinosaurs

Wingspan of Flying Dinosaur Types

What’s interesting is that the different sizes of Pterosaurs are directly connected to the size of their wingspan. So, in the following table, I have arranged the different wingspans of Pterosaur. As there are many fossils found and classified, this is just a tiny snapshot, but it gives you a glimpse that there was just about every size of flying dinosaur types imaginable (Source).

Table 3 -Wingspans of Flying Reptiles

Name and Time PeriodWing Span measurement - average/full adultSmall - Medium - Large
Pterodactylus antiquus3.5 ft (1.1m)Small
Pterodaustro8.2 ft ( 2.5m)Medium
Moganopterus23 ft (7m)Large
Pteranodon18ft (5.6m)Large
Istiodactylus26ft (8m)Large
Quetzalcoatlus36-39ft (11–12m)Large
Dimorphodon4.6ft (1.5m)Medium
Rhamphorhynchus 5.9ft (1.8m)Medium
Arcticodactylus3.3ft (1m) - estimate from closest ancestor EudimorphodonMedium
Campylognathoides6ft (1.8m)Small
Sordes2ft (0.6m)Small
Pterorhynchus2.8ft (0.9m)Small
Anurognathus1.8ft (0.5m) Small
Name and Time PeriodWing Span measurement - average/full adultSmall - Medium - Large

At first, it was thought that the pterosaurs could not have an active flight like modern-day birds. They only flew by gliding in the air. Later, with skeleton studies of flying reptiles, they had a big brain used for complex behaviors during flight, well-developed optic lobes, very thin hollow bones (air-filled), and, additionally, they possessed many crests on their bones and a breastbone attached with flight muscles. These studies suggest that they had an active flight mechanism (flapping wings to generate flight) (Source).

More About the Anatomy of Pterosaurs 

Based on the fossils found, basal pterosaurs had jaws filled densely with teeth, and their tails were quite long. One odd feature is that they had their hind legs attached with wide wings membranes. These flying reptiles looked awkward standing on the ground due to their posture. But they were the most effective climbers by having the strong claws. Their small size suggests that they may have habituated on different trees. They had mostly fed on insects, so we can say that they were the insectivores or predators of insects.

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Later pterosaurs had smaller tails and large narrow wings that enabled gliding. Paleontologists believe that their larger skull and brain capacity for more advanced flight – AdventureDinosaurs

The later pterosaurs’ wings (narrow wings) were not attached to the hind legs. They had smaller tails, longer necks, and quite a bigger head with a well-developed brain (which had helped them in complex behaviors of active flight). They had a unique posture for walking on the ground, and they were able to walk with the help of their hind limbs.

Other Interesting Facts About Pterosaurs and Flying Reptiles

To finish off this article on flying dinosaur types, here are some interesting facts about Pterosaurs:

● A Pterosaur had a life span between 10 to 25 years.

● Pterosaurs walked on all four (using its wing limbs) instead of modern-day birds that walk on two legs.

● The back legs of Pterosaurs had four fingers, and the wings legs had three fingers, which had helped them climb easily.

● Pterosaurs were the first-ever reptiles and vertebrates that were capable of flying.

● Interestingly, these reptiles did not survive the late-Cretaceous mass extinction event and vanished completely from the earth. Their bones are fragile and unable to preserved completely, so fossils are often incomplete or not salvageable.

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The head crests of pterosaurs were different shapes and sizes – AdventureDinosaurs

● Despite the similarity, species of birds and bats are not related to Pterosaurs, but the membrane of Pterosaur wings are quite similar to the membrane of bats wings.

● The common name “Pterosaur” was the first time used in the 18th century and used for identifying flying reptiles.

● The smallest flying reptile was with the size of a sparrow, and the largest one was bigger than a giraffe.

● Male Pterosaurs possessed a head crest, but female Pterosaurs had none. It is thought that those crests were used for sexual displays or signals. 

● The size of a male Pterosaur was greater than that of the females.

● The Pterodactyl was the first Pterosaur who was discovered and identified. These Pterodactyls were thought to be diurnal, meaning they were only active in the day time.

Final Thoughts

The dinosaur world doesn’t seem complete without flying dinosaurs. Even if they weren’t real dinosaurs, the skies somehow need to have something flying around. We now know that these flying reptiles did more than fly around – they glided, scrambled around on all four limbs, climbed, and were powerful flying hunters. Amazingly, paleontologists have classified so many different flying dinosaur types, and this is a reminder of how diverse life was during the Mesozoic Era.

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Michael Haralson

I'm the owner of Adventure Dinosaurs website. Although I have an extensive business background, I am fascinated with dinosaurs and have been since childhood. I'm fortunate enough to have visited fossil museums in Europe (UK, Germany, and Spain), the US (California, Texas) and in Asia (China). Currently, I'm location independent with a home base in Kirkkonummi, Finland.

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