Pterodactyl (by which most people mean either Pterodactylus or Pteranodon) is the most familiar pterosaur, or flying lizard. Here are 10 facts you may or may not have known about this skin-winged reptile. (See a gallery of Pterodactyl pictures.)
1. There's no such creature as a "pterodactyl."
It's unclear at what point "pterodactyl" became a synonym for pterosaurs in general, and Pterodactylus and Pteranodon in particular, but the fact remains that this is the word most people use. Working paleontologists never refer to "pterodactyls," preferring to focus on individual pterosaur genera.
2. Pteranodon was much bigger than Pterodactylus...
The largest species of Pteranodon attained wingspans of up to 30 feet, larger than any flying birds alive today. By comparison, Pterodactylus was a relative runt, the largest individuals spanning only eight feet or so (and most boasting wingspans of only two or three feet, well within the current avian range.)
3 ...but it wasn't the biggest genus of pterosaur.
Lately, a lot of the buzz generated by Pteranodon has been co-opted by the truly gigantic Quetzalcoatlus, a late Cretaceous pterosaur with a full wingspan of about 40 feet (about the size of a small plane). Fittingly, Quetzalcoatlus is named after Quetzalcoatl, the flying, feathered god of the Aztecs.
4. There are dozens of Pterodactylus and Pteranodon species.
Pterodactylus was discovered in 1784, and Pteranodon in the mid-19th century. As so often happens with such early finds, subsequent paleontologists attributed numerous species to each genus, with the result that the taxonomy of Pterodactylus and Pteranodon is unusually complicated. Some species may be genuine; others may be nomen dubia.
5. No one knows how Pteranodon used its skull crest.
Besides its size, the most distinctive feature of Pteranodon was its backward-pointing skull crest, the function of which remains a mystery. Some paleontologists speculate that Pteranodon used its crest as a mid-flight rudder, while others insist it's strictly a sexually selected characteristic (that is, male Pteranodons with bigger crests mated with more females).
6. Pteranodon and Pterodactylus probably walked on four legs.
One of the major differences between ancient, lizard-skinned pterosaurs and modern, feathered birds is that pterosaurs likely walked on four legs when they were on land, compared to birds' strictly bipedal postures. How do we know this? By the analysis of pterosaur footprints preserved alongside those of dinosaurs in fossilized trackways.
7. Male Pteranodons were bigger than females.
As discussed above, in relation to their crests, Pteranodons are believed to have exhibited sexual dimorphism, the males being significantly bigger than the females (interestingly, in many modern bird species, the females are significantly bigger than the males). Males also had larger, more prominent crests, which may have been colored during the mating season.
8. Pterodactylus was the first pterosaur ever to be discovered.
As mentioned above, the remains of Pterodactylus were discovered in the late 18th century, well before science had a firm grasp on either pterosaurs or dinosaurs. Some experts even mistakenly believed (though not after 1830 or so) that Pterodactylus was a kind of bizarre, ocean-dwelling amphibian that used its wings as flippers!
9. Pteranodon didn't have any teeth.
One of the major differences between Pterodactylus and Pteranodon is that the former had a small number of teeth, while the latter was completely toothless. This fact, combined with its vaguely albatross-like build, has led paleontologists to conclude that Pteranodon flew along the North American seashore and fed mostly on fish.
10. Neither Pteranodon nor Pterodactylus had feathers.
Despite what many people think, modern birds didn't descend from pterosaurs like Pterodactylus and Pteranodon, but from two-legged, carnivorous dinosaurs, many of which were covered with feathers. As far as we know, pterosaurs were strictly reptilian in appearance, though it's conceivable that some odd species had feathers as well.