You’ve seen it in pictures, movies, and illustrations — pictures of giant beasts flying alongside towering dinosaurs in their prehistoric home. These fear-inducing pictures imply that the dinosaurs didn’t just rule the plains and forests of the planet millions of years ago; they also dominated the skies. Like their earth-bound counterparts, the so-called “flying dinosaurs” also came in different shapes and sizes. One of these flying dinosaurs had a club-shaped beak and razor-sharp teeth.
Interestingly, this flying monster was not really a dinosaur. In fact, there were no flying dinosaurs at all. The flying beasts that dominated the skies before birds and bats came on the scene were actually pterosaurs, a clade of flying reptiles.
While there are well over 100 pterosaurs, only a few of them were as interesting as the Ornithocheirus. This extinct genus lived during the Mid-Cretaceous Period across various continents, including Africa, South America, Australia, and Europe.
In 1869, scientists discovered the first remains of Ornithocheirus in Cambridge Greensand. Other remains have also been uncovered in other locations in the United Kingdom sediments and far away in Morocco. The study of these remains suggests that they were medium-sized animals that lived in the coastal environment and fed on fish.
What Did the Ornithocheirus Look Like?
The size of the Ornithocheirus has been a cause of dispute among paleontologists. Some scientists believe it to be one of the largest flying creatures ever, with a wingspan of about 40 feet. However, this has been debunked by other paleontologists, as the estimates may be a little exaggerated. A more conservative estimate of this reptile’s size suggests that its wingspan was only about 15 to 20 feet. While this means Ornithocheirus was a medium-sized pterosaur, it was still one of the largest flying animals ever discovered. The most recent size estimate of Ornithocheirus puts the body mass at about 44 pounds.
This flying dinosaur’s most remarkable feature was its club-shaped beak. While other large pterosaurs such as Coloborhynchus and Tropeognathus tend to have well-developed crests on their head, the Ornithocheirus‘ crest was at the tip of its beak. They extended from the lower and upper jaws. Each one appeared convex, with a semi-circular profile, and the upper crests extended towards the nostrils. Scientists think they used the keel to open up the shell of crustaceans and intimidate other pterosaurs looking for the same prey. During mating season, they used their keels to attract the opposite sex.
Aside from the appearance of their jaws, the Ornithocheirus also had a unique dentition that was slightly different from those of their relatives. For most pterosaurs, their teeth were pointed outwards at an angle. But the razor-sharp teeth of this flying dinosaur didn’t follow the same pattern as they were mostly vertical, which suggests that they had a different diet.
What Did Ornithocheirus Eat?
Despite the striking appearance of this flying dinosaur with a club-shaped beak, scientists believe it was a piscivore. This means it fed on fish. The incomplete nature of the bones makes it difficult to tell where this animal lived. However, scientists think they must have lived in coastal regions where food would be available.
This flying dinosaur would have flown over the Cretaceous seas in search of fish to prey on. The narrow tip of the beak structure was also useful for fishing purposes. It may have used the beak to reduce water resistance while it skimmed the water’s surface for fish. Compared to other pterosaurs, the relatively small number of teeth and their vertically-pointing nature suggest that they were adapted to catching big fishes rather than a more violent carnivore diet. The jaw of this primitive fish eater was filled with razor-sharp teeth used to kill the prey.
Fossil Discoveries and Taxonomic Issues
Some fragments of pterosaur fossils from the Early Cretaceous were found in sediments originating from a sandy seabed at the Cambridge Greensand in the 19th century. Unfortunately, these earliest finds were problematic because they were not in very good condition.
Scientists believe the carcass of the individuals that formed this fossil was probably suspended in the water for a while before it sank to the ocean bottom for preservation. This stripped off many important identifying features that would have made it easier to classify the fossil. The first specimens were initially assigned to the Pterodactylus genus, as with most other pterosaur species found in the 19th century.
Most pterosaur species discovered as far back as the 19th century and earlier were given more names than they should have, and this flying reptile was no exception. After assigning some of these remains to Pterodactylus, much of the material remained unclassified. Harry Govier Seeley decided to take up the task of identifying them. He created the Ornithocheirus genus and identified up to 28 Ornithocheirus species from the remains gathered. He published this species list in 1870. This taxonomic classification was quite controversial and sparked debates in the scientific community at the time.
Link to the Birds — Was This Flying Dinosaur Related To Modern Birds?
After discovering the Ornithocheirus fossils in the Cambridge Greensand, researcher Harry Govier Seeley had the responsibility of naming the genus. The name he assigned to the genus translates as “bird hand.” This raises the question of whether or not this flying dinosaur with a club-shaped beak was related to present-day birds.
Scientists back in the 19th century had similar questions. Back then, flying reptiles like the Ornithocheirus were considered direct ancestors of modern birds. Thus, Seeley interpreted the unique hand of this species as a transitional stage in the evolution of the birds.
Some leading paleontologists of that period disagreed with this opinion. Notable of them was Richard Owen, whose basis for disputing Seeley’s classification was that he didn’t believe in the theory of evolution at all. He also disagreed with Seeley’s attempt to name new species based on the fossil materials from Cambridge.
We now know that despite their ability to fly, Ornithocheirus and other pterosaurs were not related to birds. Modern birds did not evolve from these flying reptiles. Rather, they’re more closely related to small theropod dinosaurs.
As mentioned earlier, pterosaurs themselves are not really dinosaurs. They evolved from another group of non-dinosaur reptiles during the Triassic Period and lived till the end of the Cretaceous.
How Did They Become Extinct?
Even though the pterosaurs were not dinosaurs, they ended up suffering the same fate as their contemporaries. In fact, the end came earlier for this group of flying dinosaurs compared to their non-flying relatives. Although scientists don’t know why yet, Ornithocheirus disappeared from the fossil record around 80 million years ago. There’s still no clear explanation for their extinction.
Flying reptiles like this didn’t have a lot of enemies and faced less competition as well. Ornithocheirus was among the largest flying dinosaurs in Africa, Europe, and other locations where it lived. Even though they shared the same habitat with the much bigger dinosaurs and may have fallen prey to them sometimes, it’s unlikely that competition drove this flying dinosaur with a club-shaped beak to extinction.
The rest of the non-avian dinosaurs would eventually become extinct by the end of the Cretaceous Period about 66 million years ago, marking the end of an era where beasts roamed the earth and massive flying monsters like the Ornithocheirus were the kings in the Cretaceous skies.
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- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ornithocheirus
- Prehistoric Wildlife, Available here: http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/o/ornithocheirus.html
- New Dinosaurs, Available here: https://www.newdinosaurs.com/ornithocheirus