While many old horror films portray pterosaurs as monstrous reptiles capable of plucking a human from the ground, many palaeontologists have let this slip as artistic license. They've maintained for some time that the winged creatures were more like today’s slender and delicate cranes, catching and eating small rodent-sized dinosaurs. But for some pterosaur species, the old films may have been far closer to the truth.
In a new study, published in the journal PeerJ, researchers argue that some of the largest pterosaurs may have been far more heavily built than assumed, and could even have been apex predators in the ecosystems in which they lived. The paper focuses on one species, known as Hatzegopteryx, which was a member of the azhdarchidae famliy of pterosaurs, and suggests that it may have been a terrestrial predator powerful enough to take on dwarf dinosaurs that were around the size of an adult human.
The azhdarchidae contain some of the largest known animals to have ever taken to the sky, including the infamous Quetzalcoatlus. This gigantic beast had a 10-meter (33-foot) wingspan, making it one hell of a formidable animal. While Hatzegopteryx may not have been quite as massive as this, it certainly wasn’t a shrinking violet and made up for it in other ways.
Focusing on a single neck vertebra discovered in Romania, the researchers suggest that the oversized pterosaur may well have been feeding on large prey, potentially dwarf dinosaurs up to the size of a human. The vertebra in question is starkly different than most others associated with pterosaurs in that rather than being long and slender, it is boxy and robust.
Measuring around 23 centimeters (9 inches) long, and about as wide, the bone is unusual in that the walls are about three times as thick as is normal for other azhdarchidae, and would have been filled with a spongy material that would have given it immense strength. This suggests the beast would have been extremely dangerous and, coupled with evidence of other Hatzegopteryx fossils, would have had a massive skull that may have enabled it to swallow large prey whole.
This all points towards pterosaurs stalking the landscape not so much like cranes, but like massive maribu storks. The region where the fossil was discovered would have been an island in the Thethys Sea at the time the beast was alive. Despite extensive excavations, no teeth from carnivorous dinosaurs have ever been found on the island, meaning that Hatzegopteryx may have been the dominant predator – and what an ominous beast it would have been.