Despite what many people think, there wasn't a single species of pterosaur called a "pterodactyl." The pterodactyloids were actually a large suborder of avian reptiles that included such creatures as Pteranodon, Pterodactylus and the truly enormous Quetzalcoatlus, the largest winged animal in earth's history; pterodactyloids were anatomically different from the earlier, smaller "rhamphorhynchoid" pterosaurs that dominated the Jurassic period.
Wingspan of Close to 20 Feet
Still, if there's one specific pterosaur that folks have in mind when they say "pterodactyl," it's Pteranodon. This large, late Cretaceous pterosaur attained wingspans of close to 20 feet, though its "wings" were made of skin rather than feathers; its other vaguely birdlike characteristics included (possibly) webbed feet and a toothless beak.
Weirdly, the prominent, foot-long crest of Pteranodon males was actually part of its skull--and may have functioned as a combination rudder and mating display. Pteranodon was only distantly related to prehistoric birds, which evolved not from pterosaurs but from small, feathered dinosaurs.
Primarily a Glider
Paleontologists aren't certain exactly how, or how often, Pteranodon moved through the air. Most researchers believe this pterosaur was primarily a glider, though it's not inconceivable that it actively flapped its wings every now and then, and the prominent crest on top of its head may (or may not) have helped stabilize it during flight.
There's also the distant possibility that Pteranodon took to the air only rarely, instead of spending most of its time stalking the ground on two feet, like the contemporary raptors and tyrannosaurs of its late Cretaceous North American habitat.
Males Were Much Bigger Than Females
There is only one valid species of Pteranodon, P. longiceps, the males of which were much bigger than the females (this sexual dimorphism may help to account for some of the early confusion about the number of Pteranodon species).
We can tell that the smaller specimens are female because of their wide pelvic canals, a clear adaption for laying eggs, while the males had much bigger and more prominent crests, as well as larger wingspans of 18 feet (compared to about 12 feet for females).
The Bone Wars
Amusingly, Pteranodon figured prominently in the Bone Wars, the late 19th-century feud between the eminent American paleontologists Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Marsh had the honor of excavating the first undisputed Pteranodon fossil, in Kansas in 1870, but Cope followed soon afterward with discoveries in the same locality.
The problem is, Marsh initially classified his Pteranodon specimen as a species of Pterodactylus, while Cope erected the new genus Ornithochirus, accidentally leaving out an all-important "e" (clearly, he had meant to lump his finds in with the already-named Ornithocheirus).
By the time the dust had (literally) settled, Marsh emerged as the winner, and when he corrected his error vis-a-vis Pterodactylus, his new name Pteranodon was the one that stuck in the official pterosaur record books.
- Name: Pteranodon (Greek for "toothless wing"); pronounced teh-RAN-oh-don; often called the "pterodactyl"
- Habitat: Shores of North America
- Historical Period: Late Cretaceous (85-75 million years ago)
- Size and Weight: Wingspan of 18 feet and 20-30 pounds
- Diet: Fish
- Distinguishing Characteristics: Large wingspan; prominent crest on males; lack of teeth