Pterodactyls, technically pterosaurs, might have had beaks, but within their mouth were roughly 90 teeth. They could spear food with their beaks and then chew on it, but what exactly did the pterosaur diet look like?
Pterodactyls frequently ate fish as well as insects and other invertebrates like them. Meat sources were also appealing to this winged flying reptile, and they weren’t above feasting on dinosaur carrion either.
In this article, we’ll discuss everything related to the pterosaur’s eating habits, including whether this dinosaur species was considered carnivorous, which foods the pterodactyl snacked on, and what else its fossils tell us about its diet.
Let’s get started!
Are Pterodactyls Carnivores?
A carnivore is an animal that eats flesh and meat. When one thinks of carnivorous dinosaurs, usually come up with ferocious creatures like Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, and Spinosaurus, and not so much the flying pterodactyls.
As we mentioned in the intro, pterodactyls were proven to have teeth inside their beaks, up to 90 of them. Those teeth were sharp, and some were even hooked.
Although it’s not always as cut and dried as examining a dinosaur’s tooth shape to determine its diet, the information can help. This data is part of how we can say that pterosaurs were likely carnivorous.
You can also deduce this by examining the teeth of other dinosaurs who followed different diets and then comparing. Herbivorous dinosaur species that eat plants typically had teeth for grinding down tough vegetation. These teeth would be flat and wide.
Then there were the omnivorous dinosaurs, which ate both plants and meat sources. To accommodate for their more varied diets, these dinos had some sharp teeth and some flat ones.
We have some fascinating research in the journal Nature Communications from 2020 that further examines the teeth of pterosaur-like dinosaurs. The researchers used infinite focus microscopy to identify the tooth structure of six pterosaur species.
These are the Gavialis gangeticus, the Crocodylus acutus, the Varanus olivaceus, the Istiodactylus latidens, the Coloborhynchus robustus, and the Austriadactylus cristatus.
Based on teeth shape, the researchers believe that the Varanus olivaceus was an omnivore. Indeed, this species had some rounded, wide teeth and others that were sharper at the tips. The Crocodylus acutus consumed hard invertebrates with its sharp teeth.
The Gavialis gangeticus, which had a long beak-like mouth like the pterosaur, was identified as a piscivore. A piscivore is still a carnivore but one that feeds mostly on fish. (Source)
What Foods Did Pterodactyls Eat?
Pterodactyls were blessed with a rare gift that many dinosaurs lacked: flight. If they were herbivorous, they would have had the advantage of feeding on the tops of trees where no other creature could reach.
Since you know the pterosaur was a carnivore, how did its flight abilities translate into its everyday diet? Here is what the pterodactyl ate.
As scavengers, pterodactyls had no qualms about feeding on whatever was most convenient. In their youth, pterodactyls were believed to consume invertebrate insects.
In the early days of pterosaurs, this feeding behavior might have continued into adulthood, but pterodactyls mostly evolved out of eating insects their entire lives.
Suppose you go back and look at the skeleton modeling of the Crocodylus acutus as illustrated in the Nature Communications study. In that case, the teeth of this invertebrate-eating crocodilian are a lot like a pterodactyl’s are believed to be. Thus, it makes sense that pterosaurs could easily pierce into the hard shells of insects and eat the tender meat within.
Some experts believe that pterodactyls intentionally made their homes by the seaside so they’d have easy, convenient access to fish. We wouldn’t go so far as to say that pterodactyls were piscivores like the Gavialis gangeticus, but they certainly consumed fish quite often.
An article from Wired that cites the Nature Communications study posits one reason why pterosaurs might have evolved to consume fish: because the insect supply was running low as other dinosaurs also picked off the hard-shelled invertebrates.
YouTube Video Showing Teeth of Basal Pterosaurs That Give Indications of Diet and Teeth Wear
As we talked about before, it’s not easy to access fish as a dinosaur. It’s not like you had a fishing rod and opposable thumbs. Dinosaurs either had to have had a long neck to dip their heads into the water, or they must have possessed flight abilities. Pterodactyls had the latter.
It’s unclear at what point in their lives that pterosaurs might have begun eating fish. The Wired article mentions that experts believe that pterodactyls could have been able to fly almost immediately upon birth. It is due to how well-developed the dinosaur’s body would be when it hatched.
If that’s the case, then pterodactyls could have begun eating fish out of the water on day one of their lives.
If other creatures were dredged up from the ocean, it could have been that the pterodactyl consumed these animals as well. For instance, shellfish, squids, clams, and crab could have been on the menu. (Source)
National Geographic, in 2018, suggests that pterodactyls would have consumed birds and pterosaurs, especially smaller creatures. Since pterodactyls could fly, they could home in on and chase their prey. Even better is that non-flying dinosaurs wouldn’t be able to eat these pterosaurs.
The only exception might be dinosaurs with very long necks. Depending on the height the pterosaurs were flying, a long-necked dino species could have extended its neck to reach a pterosaur or bird mid-air.
Reptiles were easy for pterosaurs to feed on. Like they would probably hover over the water and then pluck at their prey, pterodactyls could do the same on land. Mammals were another source of meat for pterosaurs.
Quickly capturing the eggs of unhatched dinosaurs and ingesting these would have been no problem for pterosaurs, especially if the eggs were hidden at a higher elevation.
Altogether then, pterodactyls had quite a varied diet!
Since we know that pterosaurs would eat eggs, quick bites to eat from defenseless creatures didn’t bother this dinosaur species in the slightest. Whether it was the one who killed a dinosaur and came back to it later or another creature had gone in for the kill, pterodactyls would readily ingest fresh carrion.
How Habitat Influenced What Pterodactyls Ate – Fossil
Besides the structure of the pterosaur’s teeth, its habitat also majorly played into what its diet looked like. We discussed in the last section how pterodactyls would live or perch close to the sea, so they didn’t have to expend much effort on finding food.
Pterosaurs might have also been forest-dwelling creatures, at least some of them. This 2008 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America or PNAS discusses a pterosaur ancestor uncovered in China known as the Nemicolopterus crypticus.
This pterosaur, although technically related, stands out in a lot of ways. Firstly, it had no teeth. Whether that’s because the Nemicolopterus crypticus is naturally toothless or lost all its teeth isn’t quite clear.
Another interesting trait is that the pterosaur was forest-dwelling. Thus, it couldn’t have eaten fish as the pterodactyl did. What would it have consumed without teeth? Carrion would have been a clear choice, although it’s hard to subsist on just that. That’s why the Nemicolopterus crypticus is so fascinating!
Speaking of fascinating stuff, around 2015, a pterosaur fossil was obtained by Alberta, Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology says, Forbes. This fossil was noteworthy for being practically complete.
Not only did we have coprolite records of the pterosaur, but its gut contents as well in fossilized form. The gut contents weren’t in good enough condition to confirm definitively what the pterodactyl’s diet could have been, but we did get to discover that the recovered fossil had curved, sharp teeth for consuming fish. (Source)
What about the coprolite (which is fossilized feces)? Did that tell us anything interesting? Yes, indeed. It was the first instance of coprolite being recovered from a pterosaur. Apparently, the coprolite was near the dinosaur’s hip bone by the cloaca.
Pterodactyls or pterosaurs were known carnivores. Their original diet was mostly insects but later evolved to include primarily fish and eggs, smaller pterosaurs and winged creatures, and even carrion.
Although there’s still much to learn about the exact diet of pterosaurs since we don’t have a great record of its gut contents, what we know paints a picture of a sharp-toothed dino that flew gracefully over the sea in search of its next meal.