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The North American Pterosaurs: The Different Types Explained

Pterosaurs are some of the most fascinating creatures to rule over the skies! These monstrous flying reptiles dominated the Mesozoic Era, from the Late Triassic Period to the end of the Cretaceous Period. Pterosaurs are often confused with the term Pterodactyl, but strictly speaking, the Pterosaurs or Pterosauria is an extinct clade of winged reptiles that included Pterodactyls. Nevertheless, these winged creatures dominated the Mesozoic Era along with the Dinosaurs. Although there have been over 120 species of Pterosaurs found globally, it makes me wonder, how many of those species are from North America and what are the main types?

26 species of Pterosaurs have been discovered in North America since the late 1800s. The two main types of Pterosaurs found in North America were the Rhamphorhyncoids, with their long tails, and the pterodactyloid, or pterodactyls, with their short tails.

Pterosaurs, despite being reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs, were not dinosaurs. These winged monstrosities diverged from the line of reptiles that would eventually become dinosaurs.

Despite not being dinosaurs themselves, Pterosaurs were a force to reckon with as they were the first to dominate the skies, way before mammals truly and avian dinosaurs arrived on the scene!

Pterosaurs And Pterodactyls In North America

Pterosaurs dominated the ancient skies, thus their presence in the fossil records of all continents. In North America, Pterosaur fossils were everywhere from the state of Texas up to the cold northern cities of Canada. One of the runner-ups for the biggest living thing that ever flew was found in Canada, the Cryodrakon Boreas or the “frozen dragon of the north winds.”

North-American-pterosaurs-AdventureDinosaurs
The Pteranodon is one species of pterosaur that lived during the Late Cretaceous period of North America – AdventureDinosaurs

These fossil remains were often found in places that are called Lagerstatte. A Lagerstatte is an unusual and rare sedimentary deposit that extremely preserves fossil remains, even to the point that tissues are retained in some instances. Pterosaurs are some of the prehistoric animals that are quite difficult to fossilize due to their anatomical structures.

Pterosaurs are extinct reptiles that are closely related to the famous dinosaurs. These flying reptiles often have light hollow bones that aided them in flying despite their size. Despite being humongous in size, Pterosaurs are light and thin, which made fossilization very difficult. Nevertheless, we have excavated preserved Pterosaur wings that demonstrate how big these reptiles got.

These wings are actually unique because they are composed of skin membranes attached to the pterosaur’s fourth finger. However, these finger bones are quite delicate, which is why we have to rely on the skill of paleontologists to obtain them.

It was the western interior seaway that divided much of the United States and Canada during the age of the Pterosaurs, especially the genus Pterodactyl. It was divided from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Sea. This shallow inland sea split North America and served as the environment where most Pterosaurs flourished. (Source)

YouTube Video on Basic Information About Pterosaurs

YouTube Video by National Geographic which gives a good overview of Pterosaurs – AdventureDinosaurs

The Different Types of Pterosaurs In North America 

Pterosaurs were divided into two classes, the Rhamphorhynchus or the basal pterosaurs and the Pterodactyls or the short-tailed pterosaurs. These two classes lived together during most of the Mesozoic Era, from the late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous. 

The Rhamphorhynchus 

These Pterosaurs are often called the basal pterosaurs because they were more primitive than the Pterodactyls, who came into the scene much later during the Cretaceous Period. The basal Pterosaurs are characterized by their long tails and smaller body. 

The Rhamphorrhynchus were generally small winged reptiles that had wingspans that barely exceeded 2.5 meters. Nevertheless, these creatures are still relatively bigger than our modern raptors, like the bald eagle, which had around 1.8 – 2.3 meters of wingspan.

Aside from the smaller wingspan, the basal Pterosaurs also had needle-like teeth and long tails. Furthermore, most confirmed species of this primitive class lacked bony crests, which is quite prevalent in their biggest descendants, the Pterodactyls.

The smaller basal Pterosaurs are insectivores, although other slightly bigger basal Pterosaurs fed on fish and other small reptiles. Like other Pterosaurs, the basal Pterosaurs are also said to have hair-like fibers on their body that aided them in flying. (Source)

The Pterodactyls 

The Pterodactyls were kind of like the younger Pterosaurs that came into the scene. They may be on the younger side, but these Pterosaurs were some of the largest creatures to have ever flown. The top four (4) biggest Pterosaurs were all part of the Pterodactyloid group. 

These humongous beasts dwarfed the animal that currently holds the largest wingspan, the wandering albatross. For context, the wandering albatross had a wingspan of around 11 feet or 3.4 meters, almost twice the height of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal who stood at 7’1 feet. But the biggest Pterodactyls had wingspans ranging from 7-13 meters or 43 feet!

With their size, some paleontologists debated on whether Pterosaurs like the famous Quetzalcoatlus could do powered flight. The doubters grounded their argument that the size of these massive creatures could not have allowed them to fly. Instead, they argued that the Quetzalcoatlus and its close cousins scurried the mountain tops with their wings folded.

However, recent discoveries found the answer, and yes, these massive Pterosaurs can fly! Paleontologists argued that Quetzalcoatlus and other massive pterosaurs could have used the ability called “quad launch.” It means that the pterosaur would stand on all fours and spring into the air. Once lift is achieved, the massive wings could finally do their part. (Source)

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Related Dinosaur Articles You Might Also Be Interested In:
The 9 Closest Living Things to Dinosaurs (Not Only Birds)
Flying Dinosaur Types – What Were They? (Names, Wingspan)
Dinosaur Egg Fossils- 23 Things To Know About Them
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Basal Pterosaurs Versus Pterodactyls

The basal Pterosaurs have the advantage of being stable during flight because of their long tails. These long tails are said to be responsible for stabilizing and allowing the pterosaur to maintain balance. On the other hand, the Pterodactyl’s short tails do not provide stability.

The short-tails of the massive Pterodactyls have an advantage over the long-tailed basal Pterosaurs in speed and power. The lack of a long tail reduces drag when the Pterodactyl is mid-flight, allowing these massive creatures to dive-bomb their prey. 

Basal Pterosaurs also have the advantage over Pterodactyls in the aspect of speed. A small pterosaur is expected to be faster, more nimble, and agile when compared to the humongous Pterodactyls. 

However, Pterodactyls do have the advantage when it comes to flight coverage. According to most paleontologists, Pterodactyls most probably had a global flight range. It means they can easily travel from and between the two supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana without breaking a sweat. (Source)

The Biggest Pterosaurs

Here comes the fun part, time to highlight the biggest Pterosaurs that ever flew! These Pterosaurs, more specifically members of the Pterodactyl family, rivaled the size of a modern Cessna 172 Plane.  

The Aztec God “Quetzalcoatlus Nothropi”

The largest pterosaur to have ever flown was named after the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, or the wind bearer in Aztec mythology. This behemoth had an estimated wingspan of 39 ft., while some paleontologists estimate it at 50 ft. As for shoulder height, paleontologists put the estimate at 9.8 ft. 

Despite its size, paleontologists estimate the Quetzalcoatlus to weigh just around 70-75 kg. The relatively lightweight is important because being too heavy would be impractical for flight purposes. The weight is also because Pterosaurs, just like birds, have hollow bones. 

Fossil remains of the Quetzalcoatlus Nothropi were first excavated in the Maastrichtian Javelina Formation in Texas. The remains were dated to around 68 million years old, which is during the Late Cretaceous Period. During these times, Texas and most US and Canada were underwater due to the Western Interior Seaway that split the continent into two.

Most paleontologists say that Quetzalcoatlus probably hunted like modern storks. They flourished in the coastal plains caused by the Western Interior Seaway. In these environments, they could prey on fish, small crustaceans, and amphibians. (Source)

Arambourgiania Philadelphiae

This extinct pterosaur was the largest member of the Azhdarchiedae family that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, just like the Quetzalcoatlus. The very first fossil remains that belong to this pterosaur were found in the Kingdom of Jordan. Recently, cervical vertebrae and other bone fragments of this creature were found in the Coon Creek Formation in Tennessee. 

This pterosaur is sometimes called the largest pterosaur to have ever lived, even bigger than Quetzalcoatlus. Some estimates put its wingspan at around 40 ft., which is slightly wider than the estimated wingspan of Quetzalcoatlus. However, the estimates of Arambourginia are somewhat inconsistent because some paleontologists put the estimate at a modest 30 ft. 

Cryodrakon Boreas

This pterosaur had the coolest name, which translates to “cold dragon.” Since this extinct pterosaur was first discovered in Alberta, Canada, the name was where temperatures could drop to freezing levels. However, during the late Cretaceous Period, the north was not covered in ice.

The cold dragon is also a member of the azhdarchid family and has body proportions that also mirrored the Quetzalcoatlus. The Cryodrakon was for a long time categorized as a Quetzalcoatlus, until 2019 when a type species was discovered. The wingspan of the cold dragon was estimated to be around 33 ft. Despite being slightly smaller, the cold dragon was heavier than the Quetzalcoatlus.  

Conclusion

To summarize things up, there are 120 species of Pterosaurs discovered throughout the years. The terms Pterodactyls and Pterosaurs may have been interchangeably used but strictly speaking, all Pterodactyls are Pterosaurs. But not all Pterosaurs are Pterodactyls. Other Pterosaurs are not considered as Pterodactyls. Nevertheless, these winged creatures dominated the skies when dinosaurs roamed the earth and mosasaurs swam the oceans. 

Recommended Reading:

● I’ve written a whole article about Flying Dinosaurs, which describes basal pterosaurs, pterosaur classification and phyolgeny.
● If you are interested in how dinosaurs compare to dragons, especially the ones that fly, I’ve written an article which explains these avian dinosaurs.