|Name||Nyctosaurus||Diet||Carnivorous or piscivorous|
|Name Meaning||Night lizard||Height||0.5–0.9 meters (1.6–3 feet)|
|Pronunciation||NIK-to-SAWR-us||Wingspan||2–3 meters (6.6–9.8 feet)|
|Era||Mesozoic – Late Cretaceous||Weight||2–3 kilograms (4.4–6.6 pounds)|
|Classification||Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea & Nyctosauridae||Location||North America (United States and Canada)|
The fossil record has an abundance of weird-looking animals.
One of them is the Nyctosaurus, a pterosaur (flying reptile) that lived in the mid-western United States during the Late Cretaceous Period.
Although crested pterosaurs were common, the Nyctosaurus’ crest was quite an oddity.
It had a massive L-shaped crest that looked like the antlers of a deer.
Nyctosaurus was a medium-sized pterosaur, very similar in appearance to the Pteranodon, one of the most popular flying reptiles of the Cretaceous Period.
In fact, the first fossil of the Nyctosaurus ever discovered was classified in the Pteranodon genus until further studies revealed their differences.
Nyctosaurus had a relatively short-lived presence in the fossil record, leaving very few fossil remains behind.
Despite this, scientists have learned a lot about this fascinating pterosaur by studying its fossil fragments and comparison with its other close relatives.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most interesting facts about this pterosaur to understand what it looked like and how it lived.
Nyctosaurus was a mid-sized flying reptile often compared to the Pteranodon in terms of its physical appearance but was slightly smaller.
This pterosaur had relatively long wings similar in shape to that of seabirds like the albatross.
Wingspan estimates for the Nyctosaurus are typically between two and three meters (6.6–10 feet).
The largest species in the genus had a total body length of about 37.6 centimeters (1.23 feet) and weighed roughly 1.86 kilograms (4.1 pounds).
A distinct L-shaped crest is seen in some specimens of this pterosaur.
Experts think only fully-grown adults had this large crest on their heads.
The crest could grow to a length of up to 5.5 centimeters (1.80 feet) and was up to three times the size of the Nyctosaurus’ head.
The Nyctosaurus crest was made up of two grooved spars connected to a common base at the back of the pterosaur’s skull.
One of the spars is pointed upward, while the other is oriented backward.
In the past, scientists speculated that these grooved spars were connected by a flap of skin to form a giant sail.
More recently, the crest is often interpreted as being bare with no skin attachment,
The rest of the pterosaur’s skull includes extremely long and pointed jaws tapered to a pointed end.
Nyctosaurus had elongated forelimbs but proportionally short hindlimbs.
In fact, the forelimbs of the Nyctosaurus were smaller than that of any other pterosaur.
Habitat and Distribution
Nyctosaurus lived in North America during the Late Cretaceous Period, approximately 85 to 83 million years ago.
Fossils of this pterosaur have been found specifically in the central and western regions of the continent, which suggests that its geographic range was limited to this area.
The most notable locations of Nyctosaurus discovery include present-day Kansas and South Dakota in the United States.
Nyctosaurus lived along the shores of a large inland sea known as the Western Interior Seaway, which covered most of North America during the Late Cretaceous.
However, this pterosaur probably spent more time in the air than on the ground.
One piece of evidence for this is the almost complete absence of claws on the first three digits of the Nyctosaurus’ hands.
This would have made it difficult for the Nyctosaurus to cling to things on land but would have also made their wings more streamlined.
Behavior and Diet
Like all pterosaurs, Nyctosaurus had a long wing membrane that stretched from the elongated fourth finger to the body and then down to the hind limbs.
This wing structure allowed for powered flight, enabling them to cover large distances efficiently.
Nyctosaurus was a skilled and agile flier.
Its lightweight build and elongated wings allowed it to soar and glide effortlessly through the air.
The flight mechanism of this pterosaur is often compared to that of present-day soaring birds like the albatross.
Based on the total wingspan and musculature of the Nyctosaurus, scientists have been able to estimate the likely cruising speed of the Nyctosaurus.
This pterosaur gilded with an average speed of about 9.6 meters per second (equivalent to 21.4 miles per hour).
The wing finger of the Nyctosaurus (the fourth finger) is the only prominent one in the pterosaur’s hand.
The three other fingers were atrophied and barely useful.
It isn’t clear what role the giant crest on the Nyctosaurus head played in its locomotion.
The initial theory is that the crest supported a flap of skin, which formed a “headsail” that may have provided some stability in flight.
But the lack of attachment points on the crest suggests that it was more similar to the antler of deers, with no soft tissue attachment.
If this is the case, then the crest was only useful for display.
Like most pterosaurs, Nyctosaurus was a piscivore, meaning its diet consisted mainly of fish.
It may have also preyed on other small marine organisms too.
To catch its prey, it likely employed a hunting strategy similar to that of present-day seabirds.
This involves soaring over the water while scanning for prey close to the water’s surface.
Once a potential meal was spotted, it would execute quick dives or swoops to snatch its prey from the water using its elongated beak.
The name “Nyctosaurus” can be translated as “night flier” or “bat flier,” which has prompted speculations of a nocturnal or crepuscular behavior for this pterosaur.
However, scientists have found no conclusive evidence for this so far.
Like other pterosaurs, Nyctosaurus likely reproduced sexually.
Mating may have involved elaborate mating displays, but the nature of this behavior isn’t entirely known.
Scientists think both male and female Nyctosaurus individuals had elaborate crests on their heads.
If the purpose of the crest were for display, it would mean that they both used their crests to attract mates.
After mating, female Nyctosaurus would have sought out suitable nesting sites, possibly in coastal areas, where they could lay their eggs.
It’s possible that these pterosaurs practiced communal nesting, where several females laid their eggs in the same area.
After hatching from eggs, Nyctosaurus juveniles likely relied on their parents for protection and food.
This was probably not for very long since they grew rapidly.
Nyctosaurus juveniles would have gone from hatchling to full adult size within a year of hatching.
Fossils of sub-adult individuals discovered so far showed no traces of head crest.
This suggests that they only started developing their distinctively large cranial crest after maturity.
The crest continued to grow throughout the pterosaur’s life, meaning the oldest and most successful individuals had the largest crest.
Evolution and History
Nyctosaurus was a pterosaur, a member of a diverse group of reptiles that evolved the ability to fly during the Triassic Period about 228 million years ago.
They were the first group of vertebrates to take to the skies long before the first birds evolved.
The earliest pterosaurs were known as the rhamphorhynchoids.
This basal group is characterized by a small body, relatively long tails, and a few other anatomical peculiarities.
This basal group gave rise to the more advanced pterodactyloid during the Jurassic Period.
Nyctosaurus belonged to this derived group of pterosaurs.
They were bigger than the primitive pterosaurs and had shorter tails.
But the most distinctive feature of this group is their long fourth finger, modified to form a prominent wing finger.
The wing finger of the Nyctosaurus and that of its closest relative were even more specialized.
In addition to their wing fingers, most pterosaurs had three small fingers useful for walking, climbing, or clinging to surfaces.
For the Nyctosaurus, the other fingers were noticeably reduced, while the fourth finger was extremely long.
The absence of these fingers in the Nyctosaurus would have impaired their movement on land.
This means this pterosaur spent most of its time soaring over the waves hunting for food, occasionally landing on the water’s surface.
Nyctosaurids also had strong upper arms.
This would have provided a strong attachment for the flight muscles, further proving the theory that they were proficient fliers.
But the most distinctive feature of the pterosaur is the elaborate crest on its head.
Although other pterodactyloid had crests, that of the Nyctosaurus was elongated and had a unique shape compared to the crest seen in their closest relatives.
Nyctosaurus had one of the most prominent crests among pterosaurs.
This odd cranial structure may have served various functions, including species recognition, attracting mates, and possibly aerodynamics.
Interactions With Other Species
Nyctosaurus lived on the coast of the Western Interior Seaway, an ecosystem known for the abundance of vertebrate life during the Late Cretaceous.
Consequently, it shared the same ecosystem with various predators, prey, and competitors.
The shallow prehistoric seaway was home to numerous fish species and other small marine animals that may have served as food for this pterosaur.
Nyctosaurus hunted by diving quickly from the skies to catch prey below the water’s surface.
This pterosaur lived alongside ancient birds like the Ichthyornis and flying reptiles such as the Pteranodon.
Diving birds like the Parahesperornis were also present in the same location.
These aerial predators may have competed with the Nyctosaurus for food and other resources.
The Western Interior Seaway was home to large predators like the mosasaurs, such as the Clidastes, Eonatator, Halisaurus, and Tylosaurus.
These were the top predators of the aquatic ecosystem in Cretaceous North America, and they may have occasionally preyed on the Nyctosaurus when they landed on the water surface or dived to catch prey.
Large dinosaurs dominated the terrestrial ecosystem.
However, since the Nycotosaurus didn’t spend much time on land, it probably didn’t have to interact with these dinosaurs.
A pterosaur with a gigantic bony crest is undoubtedly an interesting subject for scientific research.
But this was not instantly apparent when the first Nyctosaurus fossil was discovered.
The fragmentary remains were too similar to that of the Pteranodon, one of the most popular pterosaurs.
Consequently, the newly discovered Nyctosaurus got lumped up as a species within the Pteranodon genus.
This was later cleared up, and the Nyctosaurus was reclassified into its genus.
Nyctosaurus was relatively small compared to some of its contemporaries but was still an important subject for paleontological studies.
This pterosaur has been extensively studied to understand different aspects of prehistoric life, including the evolution of flight and the diversity of pterosaur life during the Cretaceous Period.
Scientists have studied the likely flight mechanism of this pterosaur and have been able to estimate its likely wing loading and speed.
These are just a few of the interesting details that have been uncovered about this pterosaur.
Nyctosaurus is not very popular with the general public.
But it is frequently mentioned in books, documentaries, and other scientific materials, especially those that focus on the incredible world of the pterosaurs.
Nyctosaurus is a pterosaur genus that lived in the mid-western United States during the Late Cretaceous Period.
It lived on the coast of the Western Interior Seaway, a large shallow sea that covered most of the North American landmass during this period.
Nyctosaurus is known for its distinctive cranial features, including a prominent L-shaped crest that was longer than the rest of its body.
This mid-sized pterosaur showed adaptations of an active flying habit.
It soared over the sea, scanning out prey in the water and diving quickly to snatch fish and other small marine animals close to the water’s surface.
Nyctosaurus is no doubt one of the most fascinating oddities of the Cretaceous Period, which is quite impressive since it comes from a long line of already bizarre creatures.