New research into pterosaur diets is overturning assumptions based on qualitative assertions made decades ago
What did it eat? This is one of the first questions the general public – and especially kids – ask about extinct animals. It may surprise you to know that palaeontologists sometimes struggle to work out the answer. They may look at living relatives for clues, but for long-gone animals with no living descendants, like pterosaurs, the job is much trickier. What can you sensibly compare them to? Even if you make a hypothesis on their diet, how can you test it?
Pterosaurs are a group of extinct flying reptiles that include the famous Pteranodon and Pterodactylus. They are not dinosaurs, but a separate branch of reptiles that lived alongside them in the Mesozoic. They were the first group of backboned animals to evolve true flight, beating the avian dinosaurs to aerial domination by at least 60 million years. They came in many shapes and sizes, from kitty-sized cuties to giant stalkers that would have stood eye-to-eye with a giraffe – had giraffes been available in the Cretaceous. In their 140m-year span of existence, pterosaurs were a vital component of the many rich ecosystems of the Mesozoic. And yet we know almost nothing definitive about what they ate.