The North American Pterosaurs: The Different Types Explained | Adventure Dinosaurs (2023)

Pterosaurs are some of the most fascinating creatures to rule over the skies! These monstrous flying reptiles dominated the Mesozoic Era, from the Late Triassic Period to the end of the Cretaceous Period. Pterosaurs are often confused with the term Pterodactyl, but strictly speaking, the Pterosaurs or Pterosauria is an extinct clade of winged reptiles that included Pterodactyls. Nevertheless, these winged creatures dominated the Mesozoic Era along with the Dinosaurs. Although there have been over 120 species of Pterosaurs found globally, it makes me wonder, how many of those species are from North America and what are the main types?

26 species of Pterosaurs have been discovered in North America since the late 1800s. The two main types of Pterosaurs found in North America were the Rhamphorhyncoids, with their long tails, and the pterodactyloid, or pterodactyls, with their short tails.

Pterosaurs, despite being reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs, were not dinosaurs. These winged monstrosities diverged from the line of reptiles that would eventually become dinosaurs.

Despite not being dinosaurs themselves, Pterosaurs were a force to reckon with as they were the first to dominate the skies, way before mammals truly and avian dinosaurs arrived on the scene!


Pterosaurs And Pterodactyls In North America

Pterosaurs dominated the ancient skies, thus their presence in the fossil records of all continents. In North America, Pterosaur fossils were everywhere from the state of Texas up to the cold northern cities of Canada. One of the runner-ups for the biggest living thing that ever flew was found in Canada, the Cryodrakon Boreas or the “frozen dragon of the north winds.”

The North American Pterosaurs: The Different Types Explained | Adventure Dinosaurs (1)

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These fossil remains were often found in places that are called Lagerstatte. A Lagerstatte is an unusual and rare sedimentary deposit that extremely preserves fossil remains, even to the point that tissues are retained in some instances. Pterosaurs are some of the prehistoric animals that are quite difficult to fossilize due to their anatomical structures.

Pterosaurs are extinct reptiles that are closely related to the famous dinosaurs. These flying reptiles often have light hollow bones that aided them in flying despite their size. Despite being humongous in size, Pterosaurs are light and thin, which made fossilization very difficult. Nevertheless, we have excavated preserved Pterosaur wings that demonstrate how big these reptiles got.

These wings are actually unique because they are composed of skin membranes attached to the pterosaur’s fourth finger. However, these finger bones are quite delicate, which is why we have to rely on the skill of paleontologists to obtain them.

It was the western interior seaway that divided much of the United States and Canada during the age of the Pterosaurs, especially the genus Pterodactyl. It was divided from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Sea. This shallow inland sea split North America and served as the environment where most Pterosaurs flourished.(Source)

YouTube Video on Basic Information About Pterosaurs

The Different Types of Pterosaurs In North America

Pterosaurs were divided into two classes, the Rhamphorhynchus or the basal pterosaurs and the Pterodactyls or the short-tailed pterosaurs. These two classes lived together during most of the Mesozoic Era, from the late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous.

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The Rhamphorhynchus

These Pterosaurs are often called the basal pterosaurs because they were more primitive than the Pterodactyls, who came into the scene much later during the Cretaceous Period. The basal Pterosaurs are characterized by their long tails and smaller body.

The Rhamphorrhynchus were generally small winged reptiles that had wingspans that barely exceeded 2.5 meters. Nevertheless, these creatures are still relatively bigger than our modern raptors, like the bald eagle, which had around 1.8 – 2.3 meters of wingspan.

Aside from the smaller wingspan, the basal Pterosaurs also had needle-like teeth and long tails. Furthermore, most confirmed species of this primitive class lacked bony crests, which is quite prevalent in their biggest descendants, the Pterodactyls.

The smaller basal Pterosaurs are insectivores, although other slightly bigger basal Pterosaurs fed on fish and other small reptiles. Like other Pterosaurs, the basal Pterosaurs are also said to have hair-like fibers on their body that aided them in flying.(Source)

The Pterodactyls

The Pterodactyls were kind of like the younger Pterosaurs that came into the scene. They may be on the younger side, but these Pterosaurs were some of the largest creatures to have ever flown. The top four (4) biggest Pterosaurs were all part of the Pterodactyloid group.

These humongous beasts dwarfed the animal that currently holds the largest wingspan, the wandering albatross. For context, the wandering albatross had a wingspan of around 11 feet or 3.4 meters, almost twice the height of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal who stood at 7’1 feet. But the biggest Pterodactyls had wingspans ranging from 7-13 meters or 43 feet!

With their size, some paleontologists debated on whether Pterosaurs like the famous Quetzalcoatlus could do powered flight. The doubters grounded their argument that the size of these massive creatures could not have allowed them to fly. Instead, they argued that the Quetzalcoatlus and its close cousins scurried the mountain tops with their wings folded.

However, recent discoveries found the answer, and yes, these massive Pterosaurs can fly! Paleontologists argued that Quetzalcoatlus and other massive pterosaurs could have used the ability called “quad launch.” It means that the pterosaur would stand on all fours and spring into the air. Once lift is achieved, the massive wings could finally do their part.(Source)

Basal Pterosaurs Versus Pterodactyls

The basal Pterosaurs have the advantage of being stable during flight because of their long tails. These long tails are said to be responsible for stabilizing and allowing the pterosaur to maintain balance. On the other hand, the Pterodactyl’s short tails do not provide stability.

The short-tails of the massive Pterodactyls have an advantage over the long-tailed basal Pterosaurs in speed and power. The lack of a long tail reduces drag when the Pterodactyl is mid-flight, allowing these massive creatures to dive-bomb their prey.

Basal Pterosaurs also have the advantage over Pterodactyls in the aspect of speed. A small pterosaur is expected to be faster, more nimble, and agile when compared to the humongous Pterodactyls.

However, Pterodactyls do have the advantage when it comes to flight coverage. According to most paleontologists, Pterodactyls most probably had a global flight range. It means they can easily travel from and between the two supercontinents ofLaurasia and Gondwanawithout breaking a sweat. (Source)

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Recommended Reading

The article you are reading is one of the 11 Series Articles connected to the Flying Dinosaur Types – Ultimate Guide to Pterodactyls, Pterosaurs. Check out the Ultimate Guide (see description and link directly below) or other key Series Articles selected for you at the bottom of this article!

Flying Dinosaur Types – Ultimate Guide to Pterodactyls, Pterosaurs
Main Article – With Links to 11 Series Articles

❖ Read Now! Flying Dinosaur Types – Ultimate Guide to Pterodactyls, Pterosaurs

This is the main article in the series and it is packed with information all about the flying reptiles that ruled the skies during the Mesozoic Era. It covers the different types of pterosaurs, from the basal pterosaurs and later species as well. There are sections on pterodactyl anatomy, classification, and phylogeny. The master article also covers:

—Interesting facts you may not know about pterosaurs
—Tables comparing wingspan sizes of different pterosaur species
—Links to all the Series Articles (11 in total!) which give deeper information about the pterosaurs

The Biggest Pterosaurs

Here comes the fun part, time to highlight the biggest Pterosaurs that ever flew! These Pterosaurs, more specifically members of the Pterodactyl family, rivaled the size of a modern Cessna 172 Plane.

The Aztec God “Quetzalcoatlus Nothropi”

The largest pterosaur to have ever flown was named after the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, or the wind bearer in Aztec mythology. This behemoth had an estimated wingspan of 39 ft., while some paleontologists estimate it at 50 ft. As for shoulder height, paleontologists put the estimate at 9.8 ft.

Despite its size, paleontologists estimate the Quetzalcoatlus to weigh just around 70-75 kg. The relatively lightweight is important because being too heavy would be impractical for flight purposes. The weight is also because Pterosaurs, just like birds, have hollow bones.

Fossil remains of the Quetzalcoatlus Nothropi were first excavated in the Maastrichtian Javelina Formation in Texas. The remains were dated to around 68 million years old, which is during the Late Cretaceous Period. During these times, Texas and most US and Canada were underwater due to the Western Interior Seaway that split the continent into two.

Most paleontologists say that Quetzalcoatlus probably hunted like modern storks. They flourished in the coastal plains caused by the Western Interior Seaway. In these environments, they could prey on fish, small crustaceans, and amphibians. (Source)

Arambourgiania Philadelphiae

This extinct pterosaur was the largest member of the Azhdarchiedae family that lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, just like the Quetzalcoatlus. The very first fossil remains that belong to this pterosaur were found in the Kingdom of Jordan. Recently, cervical vertebrae and other bone fragments of this creature were found in the Coon Creek Formation in Tennessee.

This pterosaur is sometimes called the largest pterosaur to have ever lived, even bigger than Quetzalcoatlus. Some estimates put its wingspan at around 40 ft., which is slightly wider than the estimated wingspan of Quetzalcoatlus. However, the estimates of Arambourginia are somewhat inconsistent because some paleontologists put the estimate at a modest 30 ft.

Cryodrakon Boreas

This pterosaur had the coolest name, which translates to “cold dragon.” Since this extinct pterosaur was first discovered in Alberta, Canada, the name was where temperatures could drop to freezing levels. However, during the late Cretaceous Period, the north was not covered in ice.

The cold dragon is also a member of the azhdarchid family and has body proportions that also mirrored the Quetzalcoatlus. The Cryodrakon was for a long time categorized as a Quetzalcoatlus, until 2019 when a type species was discovered. The wingspan of the cold dragon was estimated to be around 33 ft. Despite being slightly smaller, the cold dragon was heavier than the Quetzalcoatlus.


To summarize things up, there are 120 species of Pterosaurs discovered throughout the years. The terms Pterodactyls and Pterosaurs may have been interchangeably used but strictly speaking, all Pterodactyls are Pterosaurs. But not all Pterosaurs are Pterodactyls. Other Pterosaurs are not considered as Pterodactyls. Nevertheless, these winged creatures dominated the skies when dinosaurs roamed the earth and mosasaurs swam the oceans.

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Recommended Reading:

● I’ve written a whole article about Flying Dinosaurs, which describes basal pterosaurs, pterosaur classification and phyolgeny.
● If you are interested in how dinosaurs compare to dragons, especially the ones that fly, I’ve written an article which explains these avian dinosaurs.


What are the different types of pterosaur? ›

What is the difference between pterosaurs and dinosaurs? ›

Dinosaurs are characterised by distinctive features of the skeleton, including a window-like opening in the pelvis where the thigh bone connects. Pterosaurs don't have this joint, and they have their own unique features such as extra-long fourth fingers that support their wings.

What are the two types of pterosaurs? ›

Pterosaurs consist of two main types (they do form a single (monophyletic) group, though): the "rhamphorhynchoids," more properly termed the basal Pterosauria, which had long tails, and their descendants the "pterodactyloids," which had shorter tails.

What's the difference between a pterosaur? ›

Part of what separates dinosaurs from pterosaurs are their hip and arm bones. All dinosaurs have a hole in their hip socket and a crest on their upper arm bone; all pterosaurs do not.

How many different types of pterodactyls are there? ›

Millions of years ago, these flying reptiles ruled the skies. Over 150 species have been discovered around the world so far!

What are pterosaurs if they aren't dinosaurs? ›

Pterodactyls, the common name for pterosaurs, are an extinct group of winged reptiles.

What dinosaur is not a dinosaur? ›

Pterosaurs are not considered to be part of the dinosaur group. They are reptiles and they are flying reptiles.

Is A pterodactyl A Bird or a dinosaur? ›

Neither birds nor bats, pterosaurs were reptiles, close cousins of dinosaurs who evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family tree. They were also the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight—not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air.

What is the flying dinosaur in North America? ›

Quetzalcoatlus /kɛtsəlkoʊˈætləs/ is a genus of azdarchid pterosaur known from the Late Cretaceous Maastrichtian age of North America. Its two confirmed species, along with other azdarchids, were the largest known flying animals of all time.

Were there pterodactyls in North America? ›

It is likely that all fossils of Pterodactylus represent different stages of growth within a single species. Pteranodon, a Late Cretaceous form found in North America, had a long cranial crest and a wingspan exceeding 7 metres.

What pterosaurs lived with T Rex? ›

Arambourgiania was a pterosaur – a group of reptiles that includes pterodactyls but which is distinct from dinosaurs. It lived during the Late Cretaceous period, at the same time as Tyrannosaurus rex.

What is the most popular pterosaur? ›

Pteranodon, arguably the most famous pterosaur, is estimated to have had a wingspan of 6-7 m. The azhdarchids are one of the most successful Cretaceous pterosaur groups and include several large species with wingspans of approximately 9-12 m.

What dinosaur has 500 teeth? ›

Bizarre 500-toothed dinosaur

Nigersaurus, you might remember, we named for bones collected on the last expedition here three years ago. This sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) has an unusual skull containing as many as 500 slender teeth.

What's the difference between Pteranodon and pterodactyl? ›

Pterodactyls are much smaller than Pteranodons. They are both winged creatures, but Pterodactyls often walked on land with the help of their hands. Pterodactyls also differ from Pteranodons in that their heads were soft, while Pteranodons have hard heads with large crests atop them.

What is the most terrifying pterosaur? ›

Now we know, thanks to University of Queensland researchers, that the Cretaceous was even scarier than we thought. The most fearsome pterosaur of all was called Thapunngaka shawi, and it was described in a paper published in August 2021 in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

What is the smallest pterosaur ever? ›

The smallest known pterosaur is Nemicolopterus with a wingspan of about 25 cm (10 in). The specimen found may be a juvenile or a subadult, however, and adults may have been larger.

What is the smallest pterosaur? ›

Pterodactyls were (mostly) toothless pterosaurs (prehistoric flying reptiles), the smallest known species of which is presently the forest pterosaur Nemicolopterus crypticus, which was formally described in 2008.

What is the biggest type of pterodactyl? ›

The largest ever pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, was named in 1975 following the discovery of hundreds of bones in Big Bend National Park. The species was described from the large bones of the left wing, but many smaller bones were also found in other areas of the park in different layers of rock.

What is a pterosaur vs pterodactyl? ›

Pterodactyl, or Pterodactylus antiquus, is actually a specific type of pterosaur in the group Pterosauria, which encompasses the entire group of prehistoric flying reptiles. Pterodactylus antiquus lived 150 million years ago, ate insects or fish, and had wingspans of up to five feet.

What killed pterodactyls? ›

At the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, a meteorite or comet slammed into Earth. That calamity—and other events—wiped out roughly three-quarters of all animal species, including all remaining pterosaurs and dinosaurs.

What dinosaur has wings but Cannot fly? ›

The newly named species, Serikornis sungei, adds to the ranks of dinosaurs that effectively had four wings, thanks to heavily feathered hindlimbs and forelimbs. But in a twist for paleontologists, the evidence suggests that Serikornis couldn't fly.

Is pterodactyl the only dinosaur that can fly? ›

They lived in the Late Jurassic through Late Cretaceous epochs, around 66 million years ago. Is Pterodactyl The only dinosaur that could fly? No, but they were the first reptiles and the first vertebrates to ever have successfully flown according to today's research.

Why did pterosaurs go extinct but not birds? ›

Pterosaurs, flying reptiles from the time of the dinosaurs, were not driven to extinction by the birds, but in fact they continued to diversify and innovate for millions of years afterward, according to new research.

What is the only dinosaur left? ›

Most dinosaurs went extinct. Only birds remained. Over the next 66 million years, birds evolved in many ways, which enabled them to survive in lots of different habitats.

Why is it no longer called a brontosaurus? ›

Due to the rules of scientific naming - the first name published gets priority - Brontosaurus was relegated to scientific history and the fossils reassigned to Apatosaurus.

What is the only male dinosaur? ›

Did you know that the Indoraptor is the only male creature, hybrid or otherwise, in Jurassic World Evolution? All the other dinosaurs are engineered female!

What pterosaur is bigger than Quetzalcoatlus? ›

Although Quetzalcoatlus is staying in our top spot, a major challenger has emerged. This pterosaur is called Arambourgiania philadelphiae. Some estimates claim that this pterosaur had a wingspan that measured 39 to 46 feet or 12 to 13 meters. If that was the case, this would be the largest creature.

What is the most famous pterosaur? ›

The largest and most famous of these aerial titans was Quetzalcoatlus. Named after a Mesoamerican deity, Quetzalcoatlus is the most famous member of the azhdarchids, a family of pterosaurs limited to the Cretaceous period, the time between 144 and 66 million years ago.

What is the biggest pterosaur to ever live? ›

With a 11 to 12-m wingspan, Quetzalcoatlus is the largest flying organism ever known and one of the most familiar pterosaurs to the public. First discovered in 1971, this pterosaur was thought to have flown over land using updrafts like condors and eagles.

What is the most powerful flying dinosaur? ›

The largest-ever flying animal acted like a giant heron, plucking prey from the water and launching itself into the air. Quetzalcoatlus northropi was a pterosaur which ruled the skies for millions of years, alongside a newly discovered relative.

Which was the largest flying creature that was not a true word? ›

The pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus northropi is the largest known flying animal to have ever existed, living on Earth more than 67 million years ago.

What is the scariest flying dinosaur? ›

The 'dragon of death' was perhaps the most fearsome member of the dino-air force. This flying reptile or pterosaur's body alone was the size of a school bus.

Could a human ride a pterodactyl? ›

Habib's calculations suggest that a pterosaur's wings could lift a maximum of 500 pounds, maybe more. That's close to the creature's estimated weight — but if the creature had a slightly more efficient build than the anatomical models suggest, carrying a 100-pound human would be within the realm of possibility.


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