Pterosaurs Were on the Menu For Ancient Fish and Dinosaurs

By Sarah Zhang | March 9, 2012 10:02 am

You’d think that a flying pterosaur with a 6-foot wingspan wouldn’t have to worry too much about getting eaten. Two recent fossils suggest otherwise.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science tells the perverse story behind this stunning fossil:

The Rhamphorhynchus [pterosaur] has a small fish lodged in its throat. It had just caught its prey and had started to swallow it. This animal was very much alive when Aspidorhynchus [a predatory fish] snagged it. But not for long – Rhamphorhynchus was probably pulled underwater and drowned. But the encounter was fatal for Aspidorhynchus too. Its skull wasn’t flexible enough to cope with large prey, and the pterosaur was too big and bulky for it to swallow.

It probably couldn’t get rid of its victim either. The pterosaur’s left wing bones are distorted, while the rest of its skeleton is intact. [The study’s authors] Frey and Tischlinger think that the fish tried to shake off its unwanted morsel, clearly to no avail. Perhaps the tough fibres in Rhamphorhynchus’s wing snagged in Aspidorhynchus’s tightly packed teeth. With neither party able to break free, both died.

The velociraptor in the fossil below didn’t fare too well either after eating a pterosaur, which was likely its last meal. The black arrows point to pterosaur bone fragments in its rib cage. The white arrow points to its own broken rib.

Alas, the backstory of this fossil probably does not involved a dramatic fight, though as Brian Switek writes at Dinosaur Tracking, it does suggest that the mighty predator velociraptor wasn’t above scavenging either:

 [T]he animal probably had a wingspan over six feet across and weighed more than 19 pounds. But it would have been large compared to the relatively small Velociraptor that consumed it. This would have made the sharp-beaked pterosaur “a difficult, and probably even dangerous, target [for] a young dromaeosaur,” [David] Hone and co-authors suggest, and therefore “unless the pterosaur was already ill, infirm or injured, it seems unlikely that this would be a case of predation.” And the fact that the dinosaur consumed a large bone further suggests this might have been another instance of Velociraptor scavenging. If the pterosaur carcass was fresh, the Velociraptor probably would have consumed the available soft tissues first. The fact that the dinosaur ate bone may be an indication that the pterosaur had been picked over and there was only a little meat left clinging to the carcass.

Images courtesy of Eberhard Fry / PLoS ONE and David Hone / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 

  • Jean Dokken

    I guess I don’t understand or see very well, but what is the connection between the fish and the velociraptor and how does the pterosaur fit in. To me, the article is not clear. Obviously I am not very knowledgeable about such things, but I am interested and enjoy learning, and it’s clear I have a lot more learning to do.
    I need a little clarification. What killed the pterosaur to begin with?

  • rims

    @ Jean Dokken

    There is no “connection between the fish and the velociraptor,” they’re two completely separate fossils revealing two completely different circumstances. (Therefore, two completely different pterosaurs were involved.)

    The only similarity is that both the fish and the velociraptor had a pterosaur as their final meal. The fish probably caught its pterosaur live from the surface of the water while the velociraptor may have scavenged the bones of its pterosaur from a carcass on land.

  • Jordan Qualls

    There’s no direct connection, they’re two separate fossils.


    Jean Dokken:

    Both of them were done in by trying to eat a (different) Pterosaur; that’s the connection.

    The Big Fish couldn’t disgorge the Pterosaur, so they both died, presumably the Pterosaur drowned quickly but the Big Fish lived for some time after it’s poor choice of a snack, perhaps dying of humiliation in front of his fellow fish (“Look at him; what an Aspido!”). I think it’d be kind of tough to hunt with a Pterosaur stuck in your mouth. How long the small fish lasted in the Pterosaur’s stomach is anybody’s guess.

    The Velociraptor, not having the kind of dentition to gnaw what was left on the bones, apparently swallowed them whole, probably breaking ribs and punching holes in vital organs. Like a dog eating a splintery, cooked chicken bone. The quote from Brian Switek doesn’t speculate on the supposed demise of the Pterosaur in question, only that it must have been dead or very sick for small Velociraptor to have tackled its carcass.


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