We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Pterosaurs Were on the Menu For Ancient Fish and Dinosaurs

By Sarah Zhang
Mar 9, 2012 9:02 PMNov 19, 2019 8:46 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

You'd think that a flying pterosaur with a 6-foot wingspan wouldn't have to worry too much about getting eaten. Two recent fossils suggest otherwise.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science tells the perverse story behind this stunning fossil:

The Rhamphorhynchus [pterosaur] has a small fish lodged in its throat. It had just caught its prey and had started to swallow it. This animal was very much alive when Aspidorhynchus [a predatory fish] snagged it. But not for long – Rhamphorhynchus was probably pulled underwater and drowned. But the encounter was fatal for Aspidorhynchus too. Its skull wasn’t flexible enough to cope with large prey, and the pterosaur was too big and bulky for it to swallow. It probably couldn’t get rid of its victim either. The pterosaur’s left wing bones are distorted, while the rest of its skeleton is intact. [The study's authors] Frey and Tischlinger think that the fish tried to shake off its unwanted morsel, clearly to no avail. Perhaps the tough fibres in Rhamphorhynchus’s wing snagged in Aspidorhynchus’stightly packed teeth. With neither party able to break free, both died.

The velociraptor in the fossil below didn't fare too well either after eating a pterosaur, which was likely its last meal. The black arrows point to pterosaur bone fragments in its rib cage. The white arrow points to its own broken rib.

Alas, the backstory of this fossil probably does not involved a dramatic fight, though as Brian Switek writes at Dinosaur Tracking, it does suggest that the mighty predator velociraptor wasn't above scavenging either:

 [T]he animal probably had a wingspan over six feet across and weighed more than 19 pounds. But it would have been large compared to the relatively small Velociraptor that consumed it. This would have made the sharp-beaked pterosaur “a difficult, and probably even dangerous, target [for] a young dromaeosaur,” [David] Hone and co-authors suggest, and therefore “unless the pterosaur was already ill, infirm or injured, it seems unlikely that this would be a case of predation.” And the fact that the dinosaur consumed a large bone further suggests this might have been another instance of Velociraptor scavenging. If the pterosaur carcass was fresh, the Velociraptor probably would have consumed the available soft tissues first. The fact that the dinosaur ate bone may be an indication that the pterosaur had been picked over and there was only a little meat left clinging to the carcass.

Images courtesy of Eberhard Fry / PLoS ONE and David Hone / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.