Explore

Black Friday sale on NOW! Ends 28 Nov. View deals

Also Available in:
This article is from
Creation 43(4):24–27, October 2021

Browse our latest digital issue Subscribe

Pterosaurs

Among the strangest animals ever created

by Jerry Bergman

©Alamy.com/Corey Fordpterosaurs

Pterosaurs (‘winged lizards’) are some of the strangest animals God ever created. They are classified as reptiles, but looked more like birds. They had beaks—some of the weirdest-looking in the animal kingdom. Like other reptiles, many had sharp-pointed teeth and comparatively long tails. Unlike most reptiles, however, many believe they were warm-blooded, a feature shared with birds and mammals. And the epidermal scales characteristic of reptiles have never been found in a pterosaur specimen.

However, since reptiles are nowadays defined to include all vertebrates with an amniotic egg other than birds and synapsids (mammals and extinct mammal-like creatures), pterosaurs qualify as reptiles by this definition. Nonetheless, leading pterosaur scholar Professor David Unwin concluded they have a mosaic of features that baffles evolutionists.1

Designed to fly

Overall, they were excellent fliers. One authority even suggests they “may have been more efficient fliers than the birds and bats that fill our skies today”.2

Like birds, pterosaurs had strong but lightweight hollow bones, with walls as thin as playing cards.3 Their brain structures indicate that their nervous system was organized much like in birds, and had the specialized features required for flight.4 They even had the keeled breastbone as used by birds for their flight muscle attachments.

Pterosaurs’ wings, however, were more like those of bats (which are mammals) than those of birds. They consisted of a membrane of leathery skin stretched between their body and their long fourth finger, called the wing finger. This bone structure differs from that in bats’ wings. Pterosaurs flapped these wings like a bird, and many may have been able to soar like an eagle for great distances. From afar, they would have looked like birds.

Huge size range

Wiki CommonsQuetzalcoatlus-Northropi
Figure 1. The largest flying creature ever—Quetzalcoatlus

Though some pterosaurs were as small as a robin, some approached the size of a small airplane. The largest known flying animal that ever lived was a pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus (figure 1), which had a wingspan around 10–11 metres (33–36 ft).5 Its massive head with skull, including the beak, was 1.5 m (5 ft) long! Because of the large size of some types, pterosaurs have often been referred to as ‘dragons of the air’.6 They are also sometimes called ‘flying dinosaurs’, though they are not dinosaurs.

There have been reports, based on fossil evidence, of feather-like ‘fuzz’ covering pterosaurs. This has led to claims of ‘proto-feathers’. But on closer analysis it appears to be from the post-mortem breakdown of skin collagen.1,7 This is the same phenomenon likely to be responsible for claims of ‘feathers’ in some dinosaurs.8

Evolutionists claim that pterosaurs were not only the first reptiles capable of flight, but also were the first vertebrates to fly. Almost the entire design of a terrestrial animal would have to be modified to enable it to convert from a terrestrial to a flying animal. There are no viable examples in the fossil record of ‘preflight’ animals (before flight was perfected) leading up to the pterosaurs—or any other flying creature for that matter.

Pterosaurs—uniquely different fliers

Pterosaurs are the only creatures known to have had a unique tiny bone called a pteroid. This articulated at the wrist, and supported a flap of skin which acted as a moveable leading edge. Angling this flap could increase lift by 30%, enabling take off in a light breeze, as well as allowing advanced aerodynamic manoeuvres and smooth landings.9

Pterosaurs share with bats and/or birds several specialized features that enable flight, some mentioned earlier. Large wings, ultra-light skeletons and compact bodies are common to all three. So it might be tempting for a lay evolution-believer to think that at least some such features were the result of common ancestry. But this would contradict other aspects of the evolutionary story, so evolutionary paleontologists must hold that such similarities “were not inherited from a common ancestor, but result from convergent evolution.”10 This means that these specialized traits are supposed to have evolved quite independently in each of the three groups. Such a notion just multiplies the improbabilities involved in the idea of any of them having evolved from non-flying ancestors.

Many mysteries remain

Wiki CommonsAerodactylus-scolopaciceps
Figure 2. Pterosaurs were efficient flyers

Much is still unknown about these creatures. What was the function of the prominent crest which most of them had on top of the head (figure 2)? The fact that the crest varies greatly according to species suggests that its function may have been to help them identify other members of their species for reproduction. Another possibility is that it helped keep them cool. Or it may have helped with steering (as a rudder) while flying. It may have even combined more than one of these functions.

Although pterosaur eggs have been found,11 and even some baby pterosaurs (one a mere 2 cm long), we know very little about their courting, mating and baby-rearing practices.12

Other questions include: Without feathers, how did pterosaurs keep warm at night? How did they thermoregulate? What effect did this have on their geographical range? Did they avoid colder climates as most reptiles do today? The fact is that “many questions concerning their biology and lifestyle remain unresolved”.13 The “clues are so cryptic, that we are still a long way from working out just how these amazing animals worked.”14 While in general agreement about how well they flew, scientists are even still debating the exact way they did it.15

Wiki CommonsScleromochlus
Figure 3. A ‘best guess’ evolutionary ancestor of pterosaurs

No evidence of evolution

Wiki CommonsPterodactylus-antiquus
Figure 4. An exquisitely preserved pterosaur fossil from Germany

So far little or no evidence exists for their origin from any non-pterosaur group. Even plausible ‘just-so’ stories have to date eluded evolutionists. Their best guess about pterosaur origins is that the reptile Scleromochlus (see figure 3), was their ancestor. This animal had the body of a lizard with long, thin legs like a whooping crane, very different to any pterosaur.

Another study makes the case for lagerpetids (a group of small terrestrial reptiles) as pterosaur ancestors, but adds: “… in the absence of proto-pterosaur fossils, it is difficult to study how flight first evolved in this group.”16

The fossil record of pterosaurs is substantial; good enough to classify them into 150 different species.17 Pterosaur fossils discovered in Germany in 2001 were so well-preserved that even wing structure details were clearly visible (figure 4). Their fossils have been found on every continent except Antarctica.18 In spite of this, the long progression of fossils that evolutionists would postulate led up to the pterosaurs has never been found. In response, several hypotheses for the evolutionary relationships of these reptiles have been proposed. Researchers are forced to conclude (from their evolutionary perspective) that the pterosaur fossil record is “extremely incomplete”.19 This is even though pterosaur paleobiology has been investigated since the early 19th century and its fossil record has in recent years greatly expanded.20

The first pterosaur was a complete pterosaur, and evidence of their progressive evolution from non-pterosaurs remains elusive. In short, an enormous gap exists between them and all their imagined potential evolutionary ancestors. This is consistent with biblical creation, not evolution.

Why extinct?

The reason all types of pterosaur became extinct is still debated by secularists. We live in a world in which the dying out of species is a frequent occurrence, whether from loss of habitat, disease, genetic entropy, predation (including by humans), or some combination of these. Similarly for pterosaurs; there was likely not a single cause. Some challenge whether in fact they have all become extinct. One basis for this was a rock painting in Utah that to some appeared to be a pterosaur, now shown by advanced imaging technology to have been a coincidental alignment of separately painted figures.1 Two photos exist, each purporting to show a (different) batch of Civil War soldiers posing with what seems to be a (different) recently-killed pterosaur. However, these seem likely to have been staged in recent times, which helps explain discrepancies such as the enlisted men in one photo wearing belt buckles worn only by officers.2

Occasionally sightings are claimed by credible observers, such as airline pilots. It is difficult, however, to verify whether a creature sighted in flight was a pterosaur or a bird. Even judging the size would be difficult because there is rarely something else of known size in the same patch of sky to compare it with.

While it is likely they are now extinct, it would not be a total surprise if some, perhaps the smaller robin-sized species, have survived into modern times.

References

  1. De Pastino, B., Prehistoric Utah rock art does not depict a pterosaur, study confirms, westerndigs.org, 21 Oct 2015.
  2. Both photos have assertions of copyright for 2000, by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. and by Regency Entertainment.

Pterosaur kinds and the Ark

Since no DNA or hybridization results are available, estimating the number of likely pterosaur kinds (baramins) is difficult. However, representatives of the pterosaur kind or kinds would have been on the Ark. From Genesis 7:14 and elsewhere we learn that all the kinds of ‘birds’ were on board (another obvious indication that the Bible talks of a global Flood, since most things that flew could escape even a massive regional catastrophe). The Hebrew word for ‘bird’ means ‘flying creature’. This includes both bats and pterosaurs. As if to emphasize that more than birds are in view, after mentioning “every bird, according to its kind,” the above verse adds “every winged creature”.

Pterosaurs’ amazing neck bone engineering

See ref. 1 – used with permissionneck-bone-engineering

After this article was nearly finalized, a paper was published solving a big mystery in the largest pterosaurs, the azhdarchids (including Quetzalcoatlus).1 These apparently had “ridiculously long necks”—longer than a giraffe’s—that supported a huge head which alone was 1.5 m (5 feet) long.2But support it they did—and during powered flight, and likely while also holding captured prey in their beaks on occasion.

Each neck vertebra has a neural tube running through the centre containing the spinal cord. The tube was connected to the outer wall of the vertebra with tiny thin struts (trabeculae). These were arranged helically like bicycle wheel spokes, including crossing each other. Even as few as 50 struts could almost double the weight it could support. No other known vertebrate has this structure.

The researchers admitted:

While pterosaurs are sometimes thought of as evolutionary dead ends, the new findings reveal them as fantastically complex and sophisticated. Their bones and skeletons were marvels of biology—extremely light yet strong and durable.

References

  1. Williams, C.J. and 7 others, Helically arranged cross struts in azhdarchid pterosaur cervical vertebrae and their biomechanical implications, iScience 24(4):102338, 23 Apr 2021.
  2. Paleontologists unlock secret of azhdarchid pterosaurs’ extremely long necks, sci-news.com, 15 Apr 2021.
Posted on homepage: 16 November 2022

References and notes

  1. Unwin, D.M. and Martill, D.M., No protofeathers on pterosaurs, Nature Ecology & Evolution, 28 Sep 2020. Return to text.
  2. Unwin, D., The Pterosaurs From Deep Time, p. 8, Crescent Books, New York, 2006. Return to text.
  3. Martin, R., Earth’s Evolving Systems: The History of Planet Earth, p. 406, 2nd Edn, Jones & Bartlett Learning, Burlington, MA, 2016. Return to text.
  4. Witmer, L.M. and 3 others, Neuroanatomy of flying reptiles and implications for flight, posture and behaviour, Nature 425:950–953, 2003. Return to text.
  5. Earlier estimates were up to 15 m. Return to text.
  6. Unwin, D., ref. 2, p. 2. Return to text.
  7. University of Portsmouth, Naked prehistoric monsters! Evidence that prehistoric flying reptiles probably had feathers refuted, port.ac.uk, 28 Sep 2020. Return to text.
  8. See Tay, J., Feathered pterosaurs: ruffling the feathers of dinosaur evolution, J. Creation 33(2):93–98, 2019; creation.com/feathered-pterosaurs. Return to text.
  9. Sarfati, J., Pterosaurs flew like modern aeroplanes, Creation 28(3):53, 2006; creation.com/pterosaur. Return to text.
  10. Unwin, D., ref. 2, p. 7. Return to text.
  11. Witton, M.P., Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy, Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 74. Return to text.
  12. Caple, L., Pterosaur Rulers of the Skies in the Dinosaur Ages, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, p. 18, 2004. Return to text.
  13. Yang, Z. and 8 others, Pterosaur integumentary structures with complex feather-like branching, Nature Ecology & Evolution 3:24–30, 2019, p.24. Return to text.
  14. Quoted in University of Portsmouth, ref. 7. Return to text.
  15. Brown University, Study casts doubt on traditional view of pterosaur flight, News from Brown, brown.edu, 23 May 2018. Return to text.
  16. Venditti C. and 4 others, 150 million years of sustained increase in pterosaur flight efficiency, Nature 587(7832):83–86, 2020. Return to text.
  17. Witton, M.P., ref. 11. Return to text.
  18. Caple, L., ref. 12. Return to text.
  19. Buffetaut, E and Mazin, J-M. (eds.), Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs, The Geological Society, London, 2003, p. 129. Return to text.
  20. Buffetaut and Mazin, ref. 19, p. 1. Return to text.