pteranodon longiceps

The fiery dusk sky bathes dark cliffs in brilliant orange as the sound of the sea laps hundreds of metres below their heaven-most edges. The shadow of the rock is a great dark wall separating the land from the pulsing desire of a wide Cretaceous sea. On the edge of one such monument, the silhouette of a sizeable pterosaur catapults itself away from the cliff’s asperous face and the hissing of the spray far beneath it. In seconds, the animal -a male Pteranodon longiceps- flings himself from the shackles of the earth and into the flames of the sunset, opening his wings and soaring with the sea air away from the precipice. The Seaway opens up as a book before him, and he is carried by a light breeze into the approaching night.

Pteranodon longiceps is one of the best known pterosaurs, with thousands of individuals known to science. The species, like many pterosaurs, exhibits extreme sexual dimorphism: female individuals have short, almost absent crests compared to the huge head-prong of the males. Like all of its flying kin (and presumably their common ancestor), P. longiceps was insulated by a layer of thick fuzz; the pycnofibres are analogous to the hair and fur of mammals as well as the feathers of dinosaurs and serve the important thermoregulatory function of conserving the heat created by an endothermic metabolism.

Like Hesperornis regalis, P. longiceps is another member of the diverse and iconic Niobrara Formation fauna; the Smoky Hill Chalk member that they are from is around 85 million years old. The formation was originally the bottom of a cross-continental sea, the Western Interior Seaway, and was filled with a large variety of fish and reptiles, as well as birds. Dinosaurs, notably from the family Nodosauridae have been found in these strata, presumably having been washed out to sea. The large pterosaur has only been found in the southern parts of the formation, suggesting that its range in life would have been similar. P. longiceps was piscivorous, catching fish in its toothless beak. It would have fallen prey to many of the ocean-going reptiles, namely mosasaurs, as well as large fish like Xiphactinus audax.

Takeoff would have been quadrupedal in pterosaurs, and the animals would have vaulted themselves into the air mainly using their incredibly powerful forelimbs, pushing off of the ground and swinging over their arms. Contrary to popular belief, pterosaurs did not need high structures in order to launch into the air, nor did they need a running start.