An Ultimate Guide to Pterodactylus: The Winged Finger

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 23rd September 2023

Name Meaning“Winged Finger”Wingspan1.04 meters (3 ft 5 in)
PronunciationTear-uh-dack-ti-lusLength50 to 104 cm (1.67 to 3.4 feet)
EraLate JurassicLate CretaceousWeight4.5 kg (10 lbs)
ClassificationPterosauria, Pterodactyloidea, EuctenochasmatiaLocationGermany (Europe)

Pterodactylus Pterosaur Pictures

Pterodactylus with fish in beak | Warpaintcobra via GettyImages

The Pterodactylus

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Pterodactylus Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Pterodactylus Concept

We’re almost 100% certain that this is not your first encounter with the famous Pterodactylus!

Although small, this prehistoric creature aroused the interest of many scholars and enthusiasts.

Its fossils were recovered in Germany.

Scientists discovered this creature lived within that territory during the Early Tithonian stage of the Late Jurassic period, more precisely, approximately 150.8-148.5 million years ago.

Pterodactylus with fish in beak | Warpaintcobra via GettyImages

It had large wings extending from the fourth finger to the hind limbs and a bony cranial crest, and it was a generalist carnivore that fed on vertebrates and invertebrates.

However, the true mystery regarding the genus and its only acknowledged species, Pterodactylus antiquus, is its discovery and naming, as specialists were confused as to what creature it was for a long period.

Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Plush Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

Physical Characteristics

Pterodactylus | MR1805 via GettyImages

Before discussing the appearance of Pterodactylus, we must highlight that fossil discoveries revealed mostly juvenile skeletons.

That’s why size estimations are pure speculation until future paleontological expeditions recover other fossils.

For a long time, scientists thought that the Pterodactylus had a wingspan of only around 50 centimeters (19.7 inches).

Recent discoveries, however, showed that they were slightly larger, as adults probably reached a wingspan of roughly 1.04 meters (3.4 feet), meaning it was quite a small pterosaur.

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Pterodactylus Size Comparison Chart
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Pterodactylus Size Comparison Chart

Previous research showed it could be distinguished from other pterosaurs like Gnathosurus and Germanodactylus because it lacked a bony cranial crest.

Supposedly, it had only a soft tissue crest and something specialists call “occipital lappet,” meaning a tab-like flexible structure that extends from the back of the skull.

Nowadays, it is known that the Pterodactylus also has a low bony cranial crest, although solid crests are only known to have belonged to larger specimens that reached full adulthood. 

Holotype jaw fragments and teeth of Cimoliopterus
Holotype jaw fragments and teeth of Cimoliopterus | Joseph Dinkel from Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London

This creature’s skull was relatively long and thin and featured 90 teeth.

It was narrow, had a conical form, and extended back from the jaw tips.

Farther from the tips, the teeth grew smaller, distinguishing the Pterodactylus from its peers, who had relatively uniform teeth.

Moreover, unlike other pterosaurs whose jaws were curved, the Pterodactylus had straight jaws.

Like its relatives, the Pterodactylus wings comprised skin and muscle membranes stretching from the fourth finger to the hind limbs.

Internally, the wings consisted of collagen fibers, while they were covered in keratinous ridges externally.

Apart from this, little else is known about the appearance of the winged finger.

Still, we’re certain you’ve already envisioned this creature, as it is, after all, one of the most notable species in the world of entertainment!

Habitat and Distribution

The Pterodactylus type specimen was discovered in Eichstätt, a town in Bavaria, Germany.

The fossils were deposited in a lithographic limestone quarry.

The Solnhofen limestone, also known as the Altmühltal Formation, consists of fine-grained limestone formed by mud and silt deposits.

This territory was an archipelago during the Late Jurassic when Pterodactylus was alive.

It was located at the edge of the Tethys Sea, also called Neo-Tethys, a prehistoric ocean.

As such, the ecosystem was characterized by placid lagoons, which were highly saline, oxygen-depleted, and toxic.

The creatures living there risked falling or being washed into the lagoons and buried in carbonate mud.

Lagoon | Andrei Zubarev via GettyImages

There were times when the lagoons dried out, thus revealing hundreds of fossils belonging to dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and insects trapped there.

Since scavengers couldn’t destroy their carcasses, nor could tidal currents or bioturbation, it’s no wonder the region is so rich in fossils. 

The lagoon edges were home to sponge biostroms, corals, and sponge reefs, the latter isolating the lagoons and making sediment deposits possible.

Behavior and Diet

Pterodactylus | MR1805 via GettyImages

Scientists compared the scleral rings (rings of bone found in the eyes) belonging to the Pterodactylus to the scleral rings of modern birds and reptiles.

They showed that this pterosaur was likely diurnal, thus being able to coexist in the same habitat as other pterosaurs that engaged in nocturnal behavior.

At one time, the Pterodactylus and other pterosaurs were considered aquatic creatures.

Supposedly, they used their wings as flippers and were related to prehistoric animals like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

Later, scientists concluded that everything indicated they were flying rather than aquatic creatures.

However, the mechanics involved in pterosaur flight still needs to be better understood, especially regarding bird-like takeoff strategies.

Some studies show that they had powerful flight muscles and used them to facilitate take-off and walking.

Pterodactylus | MR1805 via GettyImages

Further research showed that pterosaurs, including the Pterodactylus, likely walked like humans and bears, placing their entire feet on the ground and walking erectly.

Still, the ground movement needs to be better studied in Pterodactylus specimens.

On the other hand, paleontologists are certain that this creature was a carnivore.

This conclusion is supported by the teeth’ number, shape, size, and arrangement.

It is believed the winged finger specialized in hunting and killing small animals, although other research papers indicate it likely had a generalist feeding strategy but preferred invertebrate meals.

The Pterodactylus is also thought to have had a strong bite force.

This further supports the supposition that it engaged in dietary generalism

Life Cycle

Fossil pterodactyloid juvenile from the Solnhofen Limestone
Fossil pterodactyloid juvenile from the Solnhofen Limestone | Photo via Daderot

Although pterosaur reproduction is poorly studied, scientists believe they reproduced by laying eggs, like dinosaurs and modern birds.

This information was carried by the first pterosaur egg ever found.

Further studies showed that pterosaurs probably buried their eggs, which might have restricted the habitats they could live in.

It’s unknown whether the Pteroactylus had one or two functional ovaries.

However, a Dawrinopterus specimen revealed that at least some creatures in the Pterosauria clade had two functional ovaries, like dinosaurs.

Pterodactylus discoveries showed that they bred seasonally and grew continuously over the years once the babies were born.

It’s likely they didn’t grow as fast as modern birds.

Their growth rate is rather similar to that of modern crocodilians.

These creatures were produced seasonally, and by the time the second generation hatched, they had reached second-year size.

Baby Pterodactylus likely learned how to fly soon after hatching.

Holotype specimen
Holotype specimen of the species P. spectabilis, now considered a juvenile specimen of P. antiquus | Ghedoghedo via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It remains unknown how much paternal care the babies received, although specialists suggest they became self-sufficient soon after hatching.

Hamipterus fossilized nests showed that pterosaurs might have bred and cared for their young in similar seabird colonies.

But, unfortunately, paleontologists couldn’t confirm whether this was 100% accurate for the Pterodactylus as well.

Other discoveries focused on growth rates on how the skull size and shape and the number and size of the teeth changed as the babies grew.

Some immature specimens had only 15 teeth, compared to adults, which had 90 teeth, indicating they grew periodically as the young matured.

Moreover, the skulls of the youngest specimens measured only 15-45 millimeters (0.59-1.77 inches), while those of the second-year class measured 55-95 millimeters (2.2-3.7 inches), although this still isn’t the fully mature size. 

Evolution and History

Sub-adult type specimen of P. antiquus
Sub-adult type specimen of P. antiquus, Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology (Original from Cosimo Alessandro Collini) | Matthew Martyniuk via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The first Pterodactylus specimen was described in 1784 by Cosimo Alessandro Collini.

Pterodactylus antiquus is renowned for being the first pterosaur ever found, identified, and described.

The first description didn’t indicate that the Pterodactylus was a flying animal, and no affinities with birds or bats were highlighted.

Collini was rather fond of the idea that it was a sea creature, although this had no physiological backing.

This idea that pterosaurs were aquatic animals was quite common until the 1830s, when the Pterodactylus was portrayed as using its wings as flippers.

Johann Georg Wagler, the same zoologist who published this illustration, classified the Pterodactylus in the Gryphi class among other aquatic vertebrates like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

Johann Hermann was the first scientist to suggest that this creature was a flying animal.

He thought the Pterodactylus was a mammal and portrayed it as having wing membranes that connected the fourth finger with the ankle.

However, Hermann associated this creature with a bat, portraying it as having a membrane connecting the neck and wrist.

Hermann sent this interpretation to another scientist, Georges Cuvier, who later published these ideas, except that he believed the Pterodactylus was a reptile, not a mammal.

At the time, Cuvier proposed a name – Ptéro-Dactyle.

Hermann's original life restoration
Hermann’s original life restoration, the first of any pterosaur, 1800 | Jean Hermann – Taquet, P., and Padian, K. via Comptes Rendus Palevol

After this, another naturalist and anthropologist, Johann Friedrich Blumenabach, argued that the Pterodactylus was a shorebird, not a reptile. 

Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring proposed another name for this creature – Ornithocephalus antiquus.

He described the Pterodactylus as being something between a mammal and a bird, but Cuvier kept sustaining his idea that it was a reptile.

In 1817, a second Pterodactylus specimen was discovered, which served as the base for the first known pterosaur skeleton restoration done by Sömmerring, who classified it as Ornithocephalus brevirostris.

Naturally, the restoration was far from reality.

In 1860, scientists reached a consensus and concluded that the Pterodactylus was a reptile.

In 1888, Pterodactylus antiquus was named the type species of the genus.

As for the evolution of pterosaurs in general, this is poorly understood since the oldest known pterosaurs were already adapted to a flying lifestyle, and scientists couldn’t outline a clear ancestry line.

Some argue they evolved from archosaurs, now part of the Archosauromorpha. 

Interactions with Other Species

Solnhofen Limestone, formerly known as Altmühltal Formation
Solnhofen Limestone, formerly known as Altmühltal Formation | weisschr via GettyImages

The Altmühltal Formation is known to have served as home to over 600 animal species, so the Pterodactylus was definitely having fun in its habitat among so many friends!

The ecosystem was rich in various creatures, including soft-bodied organisms like jellyfish!

Many other pterosaurs were associated with the formation, including Thamphorhonychus and Scaphognathus.

Dinosaurs were quite common as well. Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus are some of them.

Lizards like Ardeosaurus and Bavarisaurus were probably common as well. Other creatures include:

  • Crocodylomorphs like Cricosaurus, Geosaurus, and Dakosaurus
  • Turtles like Paleomedusa and Eurysternum
  • Ichthyosaurs like Aegirosaurus
Pterodactylus flying over a barren landscape
Pterodactylus flying over a barren landscape | MR1805 via GettyImages

Since not all pterosaurs were diurnal, they could coexist in the same habitat as they engaged in different daily routines.

They lived happily even among Compsognathus dinosaurs, which were carnivorous.

Scientific discoveries showed that they preyed upon small vertebrates only, so they likely weren’t a threat to the Pterodactylus

Cultural Significance

Pterodactylus | Photo via Jurassic Park Institute Artwork

The Pterodactylus is undoubtedly one of the most famous prehistoric creatures, not only among paleontologists and other field-related specialists but also among enthusiasts.

It has been the subject of hundreds of studies and research papers and is marked by dozens of notable appearances in movies, games, and books.

One of the most famous movies featuring this species is Pterodactyl, which appeared in 2005, although the portrayed creature looks more like a Pteranodon than a Pterodactylus.

This pterosaur caught J.R.R. Tolkien’s attention, too, as the universe he created features flying monsters that look similar to the Pterodactylus


Often regarded as the first named and identified pterosaur and one of the most iconic prehistoric creatures, we’re not surprised the Pterodactylus caught your attention!

The creature lived in today’s Germany roughly 150.8-148.5 million years ago and shared its habitat with hundreds of other prehistoric animals.

It was a flying carnivorous reptile that fed on vertebrates and invertebrates.

Although more than 30 fossilized specimens are known today, we hope that paleontologists will recover other fossils that will shed light on more aspects of this creature’s lifestyle!


Are Pterodactyl and Pterodactylus the same?

The term pterodactyl is often used in regard to any member of the Pterosauria order.

However, most people use it when referring to the Pterodactylus, the most famous member.

Why aren’t pterodactylus dinosaurs?

While pterodactyls are distant relatives of dinosaurs, as they’re both in the Avemetatarsalia clade, they evolved differently.

Pterosaurs, including pterodactyls, were the first known flying vertebrates, while dinosaurs were large terrestrial animals.

Did Pterodactylus and T-Rex live at the same time?

The Pterodactyls and the T-Rex were not contemporary.

The former lived approximately 150-148 million years ago, while the latter roamed the Earth 68-66 million years ago.


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