Photo by Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post via Getty Images
I sometimes like to think about what discovering Pteranodon must have felt like. What, precisely, is the reference frame for a fish-eating flying reptile with a 20 ’ wingspan? The biggest fossils might have been mind-bogglingly gigantic, but at least they weren’t expected to do an aircraft impression. The largest flying fowl on the planet, the range albatross, is barely half the size of an adult Pteranodon. They’re hard enough to picture even if you’ve grown up on palaeontology bibles; imagine the surprise you’d feel if you were surprised by one.
It’s very possible that the palaeontologists who first exhumed Pterandon in the western United District didn’t consider much about this sort of thing. They were, after all, engaged in a fighting. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were the two lead mortals of 19 th-century American fossil chase, each striving to outdo the other in see as many fossils and dinosaur-adjacent critters as is practicable and each wholly willing to bribe and steal their way to renown. This ended unhappily for both Cope and Marsh — conducting a palaeontological battle is expensive business — but it did leave an enormous quantity of information to science.
For the record, Pterandon was first described by Marsh’s camp. But Cope experienced it very. In happening, if you’re in the liberty areas and looking at the freedom rocks, it’s hard-boiled not to find Pteranodon specimens: there have been more than a thousand of uncoverings met in the last century or so. Why are these fogies so common?
It’s partly to do with lifestyle. Due to the car-mechanics of fossilisation, characters that live in or over the sea have a much higher chance of being continued, and Pteranodon’s main diet was fish from the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow ocean which incorporates much of the present United States about 70 million years ago. It’s also partly to do with abundance. There were a lot of Pteranodon about back then.
One of the genus they shared the coasts with, incidentally, was a smaller pterosaur announced Nyctosaurus. I bring up Nyctosaurus largely so that we can all share a laugh at its stupid head.
Tim Evanson/ CC BY-SA( https :// creativecommons.org/ permissions/ by-sa/ 2.0)
When I was a kid, Pteranodon had lost a little of its lustre. The disclosure of of Quetzalcoatlus and the rest of the azhdarchids meant that Pterandon lost its status as the largest-known pterosaur, and more recent research into azhdarchid hunting behaviour has cast some of them — specially Hatzegopteryx — as giraffes that a) could fly and b) would happily munch you. Dangerously, look at this thing. It’s HORRIBLE 😛 TAGEND
Anyway, let’s put aside the fascinating developments in pterosaur research and return to the late 20 th century, which decided to cast Pteranodon as a surface skimmer, use its long beak to snatch fish from the surface, all while remaining in flight. This is a feeding behaviour seen in modern day birds( e.g. skimmers, which are aptly called ). Skimmers are cool, of course, but not dazzling. And an unspectacular Pteranodon is a sad Pteranodon.
Fortunately, in the last few years Pteranodon seems to have gotten far more spectacular, primarily because their proposed feeding behaviour has changed. As scientists have gotten better at understanding pterosaur flight, they’re realised that the reason Pteranodon has had been thrown as a skimmer — specifically the faith that it wouldn’t have been able to take off from a dive slot — no longer maintained. So it did something else. What?
I think the most exciting proposal is that Pteranodon behaved like a gannet. Y’all are familiar with gannets, I hope. If not, you should be, because they might be the most awesome bird on countries around the world. They’re not peculiarly big or spooky or anything like that. The cool thing about gannets is how they hunt.
Gannets drop out of the sky in perfect diving pattern, thumping the surface area of the ocean at 100 mph or so and using their momentum to catch fish well below the surface. This is quite difficult to do without dying on affect( this is, in fact, a not-uncommon cause of gannet fatality ), and their entire figure is built for hitting the sea, with specialised nostrils, leaf springs, etc. etc.
Cool though those modifications are, the best thing about gannets is that they hunt in flocks. A troop of feeding gannets is an absolutely apocalyptic picture, with torrent upon stream of bird-missiles plummeting into the sea. Here’s a video from off the coast of Scotland 😛 TAGEND
Gannets diving off Noss, #Shetland – always an stunning sight for patrons to witness on our spring and summertime errands. Countless thanks to the @TheMousaBoat1 crew. @VisitScotland @PromoteShetland @SeabirdCentre pic.twitter.com/ 9YtErddX5j
— Shetland Wildlife (@ ShetlandWild) May 29, 2018
Anyhow. Gannets. They’re cool. What would reach them even cool? If they were the size of big aircraft. If a flock of gannets hunting searches apocalyptic now, imagine them on the scale of Pteranodon. It would look like the end of the world.
Is the Pteranodon-as-diver hypothesis likely? I’m not a pterosaur biomechanicist, so I don’t certainly know. But it does seem at least vaguely conceivable in a hand-wavey sort of way, and since it is both vaguely plausible and highly cool I think that’s good enough for the finding. Pteranodons: very good.
Read more: sbnation.com