Pterosaurs: A brief flight with these remarkable reptiles

Mark Witton (UK) Planet Earth was a busy place 225Ma. The super-continent, Pangaea, in the Northern Hemisphere started rifting, creating the beginnings of the North Atlantic Ocean. Dinosaurs began their campaign for global dominance of Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems and drove many older reptile lineages into extinction. In the seas, enormous marine reptiles began to challenge fish for the role of top predators. Hidden in the shadows of this reptile-dominated world, the first mammals quietly appeared. Even plants were undergoing a revolution, as archaic seed ferns were replaced with sleek new conifers. Yes, the Late Triassic was a busy time indeed. However, away from all this bustle, in the treetops and skies, another branch of reptiles were quietly carving their own place in history, as the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight. These extraordinary animals were pterosaurs – the ‘flying reptiles’. Most people are not terribly familiar with pterosaurs. Sure, they might have come across Pteranodon or ‘pterodactyls’ in books, films or television documentaries. However, pterosaurs are mostly cast as secondary components of prehistoric landscapes, playing bit parts in productions dominated by their dinosaur contemporaries. At most, pterosaurs have brief cameos in which they carry off scantily clad women or harass explorers on their entry to forgotten, lost worlds. However, these bit parts do little to tell the real pterosaur story. It is one of humble beginnings and eventual domination of Mesozoic skies for 160 million years, of global distribution and tremendous ecological diversity and, in the final days before their … Read More

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