It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s….not a dinosaur

November 28, 2008 04:45 by Wayne Gerdtz

An artists reconstruction of Pteranodon, one of the better known Pterosaurs. Artist: Kate Nolan

In a strange way, I feel sorry for some fossils. Take the flying reptiles (or Pterosaurs, with a silent “P”), for example – a group of unique animals that arose, flourished and diversified into myriad forms during the Mesozoic Era. Their success and diversity was over-shadowed for the most part, however, by the other dominant and better-known animals in the Mesozoic – the dinosaurs.

There is a misconception that the pterosaurs are a kind of flying dinosaur; not so, the Pterosaurs are a separate branch of the reptilian family tree distinct from the more popular land-lubbing dinos and those other underdogs of the Mesozoic, the marine reptiles. Pterosaurs (and their mates in the oceans) always seem to play second fiddle to dinosaurs, often relegated to second billing.…Pterosaurs didn’t even rate an appearance in the first Jurassic Park film, for example.

Part of the problem for the poor old Pterosaurs is their relative scarcity. This isn’t their fault – Pterosaurs needed to have small, lightweight bones so they could fly. Small, lightweight bones don’t preserve as fossils nearly as well as thumping great dinosaur bones, so as a consequence we find relatively fewer pterosaur fossils than dinosaur ones.

Some Pterosaurs were tiny, little larger than a sparrow, still others were truly enormous, and are the biggest animals ever to fly. The new skeleton display opening in the Easter holidays at Melbourne Museum will have the largest of all the known Pterosaurs, with an equally enormous name – Quetzalcoatlus, or as I’ll call her, Suzie Q.

Suzie will take a commanding position soaring over parade of skeletons in the new display, sharing the air above the dinosaurs with some of her smaller cousins. When you come to see the dinosaurs, spend some time appreciating the overhead underdogs – the rulers of the Mesozoic skies.