Exhibit Spotlight: Pteranodon longiceps
Look Ma! NO TEETH!
A staple of the Mesozoic in the popular imagination, no picture-book illustration succeeds without at least one of these animals (or a recognizable facsimile) occupying the skies. Unfortunately, its popularity leads to a number of misconceptions about it, which means it’s time to set the record straight on a few things!
We have five representations here at the park. The four next to the gold sluice are the only animals in the park whose sizes are exaggerated: the maximum wingspan for an adult male Pteranodon is 20 ft, but the two adults have 30ft wingspans. I don’t know why they were exaggerated, but I can think of two reasons. First, the artists may have used an outdated estimate for a related animal (Geosternbergi, which was once considered a species of Pteranodon) in their calculations. Second, since they’re some of the older denizens of the park, it’s possible that the limitations of the sculpturing material made it necessary to exaggerate them somewhat. So the adults are 50% bigger than they should be, though there are plenty of other pterosaur types that grew to this size. The hatchlings, however, are impossibly huge, poking out of eggs larger than those of Aepyornis, which laid the biggest eggs known to science. One of them is posed already eating a whole fish before climbing out of its egg! So those are pure artistic fantasy.
Males and females looked very different. Males grew larger and had the pointy-back crests that give these animals their distinctive profile. Females grew little more than half the size of the males, and only had a small bump on their foreheads. Thus, illustrations of Pteranodon exemplify the sexist oppression of the patriarchy! (just kidding—this sexual dimorphism is a relatively new discovery, well within the lag time for pop science). The fifth of our Pteranodon models takes the size of a small female, but has the crest of a male. That could mean it just represents a juvenile male, if they developed crests that young, but we like to call it Mulan anyway.
Pteranodon probably lived a lifestyle not unlike that of pelicans or albatrosses. They even had the throat pouch for storing fish that pelicans do. Though shared features make them apparent seabird analogues, paleontologists need to be careful to question those assumptions during their studies: these are extinct animals, not seabirds, and that means they certainly diverged in the details of their behaviors even if they shared general lifestyle parameters with their distant living cousins.
Popular depictions of Pteranodon usually conflate it with related animals. Artists may draw them with long tails, sometimes with arrow-shaped tips, even though Pteranodon had only a little stump of a tail. While the tails might be meant to make them look more like dragons, they might also take inspiration from an older, much smaller pterosaur: Rhamphorhyncus, also featured here at the park. And despite the fact that even the very name “Pteranodon” means “winged and toothless,” illustrations almost always give them rows of pointy teeth. Since ptera=wing and don=teeth, you can remember it with this mnemonic: Ptera-NO-don means “wings, NO teeth.” Don't call it a Pteradon, either; that name refers either to an ancient hyena-like animal or a Brazilian legume.
A distantly related pterosaur with a passing resemblance for Pteranodon did sport some impressive-looking fangs, "confirming" the toothy pop culture model in the loosest sense. When scientists discovered it in 2003, they named it Ludodactylus, in reference to the wonky pop-culture version of Pteranodon. "Ludicrum" means "play" or "games" in Latin, and also forms the root for "ludicrous." Etymology: it's like fossil hunting in words!
Bennett, S. C. (1992). Sexual dimorphism of Pteranodon and other pterosaurs, with comments on cranial crests. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 12(4), 422-434.
Bennett, S. C. (2001). The osteology and functional morphology of the Late Cretaceous pterosaur Pteranodon Part II. Size and functional morphology. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 113-153.
Frey, E., Martill, D. M., & Buchy, M. C. (2003). A new crested ornithocheirid from the Lower Cretaceous of northeastern Brazil and the unusual death of an unusual pterosaur. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 217(1), 55-63.