How Well Did Pterodactyls Fly? Here’s What We Know


The pterodactyl, more commonly referred to as the pterosaur, is arguably the best-known winged dinosaur, although technically, it’s not a dinosaur at all. This Late Jurassic bird-like creature might not have been large, but it had one advantage over dinosaurs – its ability to fly. Was the pterodactyl a good flier?

Pterodactyls or pterosaurs had incredible flight abilities that started from birth onward. It’s believed the animal could achieve flight altitudes of 15,000 feet and flight speeds of 80 miles per hour that were sustainable for upwards of a week. That would have allowed the pterodactyl to travel at least 8,000 miles.

Wow, that certainly is fascinating stuff, but we’re nowhere near finished yet. In this article, we’ll talk more about the long-distance flights of pterosaurs, their astonishing speeds, and their awesome wingspan. You won’t want to miss it! 

How Far Could Pterodactyls Fly? How Their Long Wingspan Enabled Soaring Ability

The Pterodactylus or pterodactyl might have lived 150 million years ago, but we know from complete fossil records that it had two legs. Despite the presence of those legs, this creature rarely walked. 

When it did, the pterodactyl’s walk was described as more of a sort of waddle. Instead, to get anywhere, the pterodactyl would fly. 

Here’s something cool: the pterodactyl could fly from birth!

How far was the pterodactyl capable of flying? According to a 2010 article from NPR, pterodactyls could fly for 8,000 to 12,000 miles at a time. This flight time, if needed, could be consecutive, as the animal could maintain flight for seven to 10 days at a clip.

How-well-did-pterodactyls-fly-AdventureDinosaurs
Pterodactyls had specialized adaptations which enabled it to fly long distances and scientists believe they were also agile flyers as well – AdventureDinosaurs

To determine this, paleontologist Mark Witton and biomechanics specialist Mike Habib created a computer model that mapped the flight abilities of the pterodactyl. 

Witton and Habib say that pterodactyls did not necessarily fly 12,000 miles all the time, but they could if they had to. 

That flight ability is practically unparalleled. Even modern seabirds can fly only 6,000 miles without stopping, which is still 2,000 miles short of the least amount of distance the pterodactyl was believed to be capable of covering.

For some frame of reference, if you went from Antarctica to the United States today, your flight would be 8,391 miles. A one-stop flight from New York would get you to Antarctica in more than 29 hours. From Cocos Islands to the US is 10,547 miles. 

In other words, these are not short distances that the pterodactyl crossed at all! 

The environment in which the pterodactyl lived during the Late Jurassic period was swampland with lots of trees and sea and caves. The former two areas were conducive to flight, as the pterodactyl could rest in the trees or fly across large expanses of water. (Source)

How Fast Could Pterosaurs Fly? Plus, Their Agility During Flight

If you’re already impressed with the flight distance of the pterodactyl, wait until you hear how fast they could fly. The same Witton and Habib computer data paint the picture more clearly for us. 

Pterosaurs flew at speeds of 80 miles per hour. Hopefully, you’ve never driven that fast, but you’ve probably experienced 80 MPH speeds elsewhere, such as on a roller coaster. A coaster called Stealth at Thorpe Park in Surrey, England, goes from zero to 80 MPH in just 1.9 seconds. 

YouTube Video About Pterosaurs and Their Special Adaptations for Flight

YouTube Video by American Museum of Natural History which details some interesting features which enabled pterosaurs to fly for long distances – AdventureDinosaurs

As you surely know, 80 MPH is very fast! Not only that, but pterosaurs could maintain altitudes of 15,000 feet. It is just a dizzying amount of altitude. If you ride in a hot air balloon today, your max altitude is only around 2,500 feet. 

When skydiving, your exit altitude is always under 15,000 feet because to skydive from that altitude would require more oxygen. Still, at 13,000+ feet of altitude during a skydive, this is about the closest you’ll ever get to experience what life would be like as a pterosaur. (Source)

With such phenomenal flying abilities, the pterodactyl must have been quite the agile flier, right? 

Indeed, it was! Experts believe that part of that had to do with its wing shape, which this 2011 report from the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B discussed. 

The report mentions that the tapering of a pterosaur’s wing improved its aerodynamics or how air moves around the animal’s wings. The report also states that the shape of a pterosaur’s wing would have led to drag if not for its rounded planform. 

A platform is not a platform but a part of a creature’s wing shape. For pterosaurs, their wings were described in the study as “a lunate or doubly elliptical crescent-shaped planform…found in many bats.” The study also says that “…this geography both reduces the tendency to tip stall and lowers the induced drag.”

Whether pterosaurs always had this particular wing shape that allowed them to excel in flight or they evolved to develop it, we’re not sure, but it was a feature of pterosaurs, nonetheless.

Different Types of Pterosaurs and Their Wingspans

The pterodactyl might be the most popular pterosaur, but it’s far from the only one. The genera list is extensive, with close to 100 kids, so we’ll talk about only a few different pterosaur types and their wingspans here. 

Pterodactyl

We had to start, of course, with the pterodactyl or Pterodactylus. Its name is a Greek term that means “winged fingers.” This description is apt considering its wings–which were made of a muscle and skin membrane–starting from its fourth finger. 

Although some experts have argued that the pterodactyl was rather big, possibly even too large to fly, as an adult animal, the pterodactyl would have had a wingspan of only 3 feet, 5 inches, or 1.04 meters. That suggests this was a smaller creature. (Source)

Eudimorphodon

Eudimorphodon was a pterosaur that lived in the Late Triassic Period and was found in areas of what is now Italy. 

It was a smaller pterosaur in the same vein as the pterodactyl, as its wingspan was 3.3 feet.

Weighing around 22 pounds, the Eudimorphodon also had an oversized fourth finger in which its membrane formed a wing. 

It possessed more teeth than the pterodactyl, though, 110 versus 90. The mouth of the Eudimorphodon is where its name originates, as the name translates to “true dimorphic tooth” in Greek. 

Vectidraco

With fossils of this animal found in England, the Vectidraco was given its name because it translates to mean “dragon from the Isle of Wight.” This Lower Cretaceous pterosaur was also an azhdarchoid since it belonged to the Ornithocheiroidea group and Pterodactyloidea suborder.

The Vectidraco had a small wingspan like the pterodactyl and Eudimorphodon, with its wings opening 75 centimeters. It’s also believed to lack teeth, although its snout was noteworthy for the crest on it. 

Noripterus

Known as the Phobetor, the Noripterus was a dsungaripterid pterodactyloid pterosaur. Let’s break down that what it means. A dsungaripterid refers to a pterosaur in the Pterodactyloidea suborder with great flight skills. A pterodactyloid means the creature had winged fingers akin to the pterodactyl.

Noripterus lived during the Lower Cretaceous Period and had an average wingspan of 13 feet or 4 meters. 

Kepodactylus 

With fossils recovered from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation in Colorado in the 1990s, we know that the Kepodactylus likely lived in the Kimmeridgian-Tithonian Age sometime in the Jurassic Epoch.

Its name is a combination of the words garden and finger, with the latter referring to Garden Park in Colorado. The wingspan of the Kepodactylus was 8.2 feet or 2.5 meters, which wasn’t going to break any records, but still would have allowed this pterosaur to fly with agility. (Source)

Scaphognathus

The Late Jurassic pterosaur, the Scaphognathus, was uncovered in today’s Germany. Its name refers to its oversized snout, which probably looked so much bigger due to this pterosaur’s small skull. 

It had 18 teeth in the upper row and then ten teeth across the lower jaw.

Yet how far could the Scaphognathus have opened its wings? Not too much more widely than the pterosaurs we’ve discussed in this section. Its wingspan was 3 feet or 0.9 meters, which we know from adult fossil records. 

YouTube Video About The Largest Pterosaur – Quetzalcoatlus

YouTube Video by Jinzo X which describes the giant pterosaur’s habitat and where its fossils were found – AdventureDinosaurs

Quetzalcoatlus

The Quetzalcoatlus, according to the NPR article we linked above, has been called “the largest flying animal that ever lived.” Thus, we had to talk about it. This Late Cretaceous pterosaur in the Azhdarchidae family had no teeth and an elongated neck. 

It’s believed that the Quetzalcoatlus was anywhere from 36 to 68.9 feet long; we did say this was one big pterosaur! Its wingspan was equally impressive, as the Quetzalcoatlus had a wingspan of 52 feet or 15.9 meters. 

Conclusion

Pterodactyls were astonishingly good fliers, as they could achieve flight for more than a week at consistent speeds of 80 MPH and a very high altitude of 15,000 feet. Although they’re not true dinosaurs, pterodactyls still deserve to be remembered and regarded as highly as they are, as even today’s flying creatures can barely compare! 

Recommended Reading:

● I’ve written an in-depth article on flying dinosaurs, or rather flying reptiles, covering more information on basal pterosaurs, pterosaur phylogeny, and classification which will give a deeper analysis of pterosaurs.

● If you are interested in the different types of North American pterodactyls, I’ve written an article that describes the United States and Canada during the age of the Pterosaurs including some of the major types of fossils found.

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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