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Reptiles Guide


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Pterodactyl (derived from the Greek words πτερυζ(ptero) (wing) and δακτυλος(dactyl) (finger) meaning "winged finger", "wing-finger" or "finger-wing") is a common term for some types of pterosaurs or ("wing lizards"), especially the later (mainly late Jurassic or Cretaceous Periods) shorter-tailed examples, which belong to the Suborder Pterodactyloidea. The wing was a leathery skin covering, over the forelimb. Many specimens preserve a coat of fur. Well-known examples of pterodactyls are Pterodactylus, Dsungaripterus, Pteranodon and Quetzalcoatlus. Prehistoric flying reptiles of this type are sometimes referred to as dinosaurs, but this is incorrect. The term dinosaur is more correctly restricted to a certain group of terrestrial reptiles with a unique upright stance, and therefore excludes the pterosaurs and the various groups of extinct aquatic reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs. Pelycosaurs, such as the sail-backed Dimetrodon, are also commonly confused with dinosaurs, but are actually more closely related to mammals.

Another subgroup of pterosaurs, more primitive than the pterodactyloids, is the Suborder Rhamphorhynchoidea, which are mainly found in earlier (Triassic-Jurassic) deposits and usually have long tails. Examples include Dimorphodon, Eudimorphodon, Scaphognathus, Anurognathus, Sordes and Campylognathus.

Fossilised pterosaurs have been found in North America, United Kingdom, Europe, Africa and Australia. The first pterosaur fossil was found by an Italian naturalist, Collini, in 1784. The name "Ptero-dactyle" was first coined by Georges Cuvier in 1809 for a specimen recovered in Germany; however, due to the standardization of scientific names, the official name for this species became Pterodactylus, though the name "pterodactyl" continued to be popularly applied to all members of this first specimen's order.

A famous UK find was an example of Dimorphodon by Mary Anning, at Lyme Regis in 1828.

A dusty hoax

It was reported in an article in The Illustrated London News (February 9, 1856, page 166) that, in 1856, workmen laboring in a tunnel for a railway line, between Saint-Dizier and Nancy, in France, were cutting through Jurassic limestone when a large creature stumbled out from inside it. It fluttered its wings, made a croaking noise and dropped dead. According to the workers, the creature had a 10 foot wingspan, four legs joined by a membrane, black leathery skin, talons for feet and a toothed mouth. A local student of paleontology identified the animal as a pterodactyl. The report had the animal turn to dust, as soon as it had died.

Supported by the lack of evidence, this story is believed to have been a hoax, stimulated in part by contemporary Franco-Prussian palaeontological rivalry. The Solnhofen limestone from Bavaria (in which Archaeopteryx would later be discovered) was producing many prized fossils, each of which was proudly announced by German paleontologists. The tunnel in question was through limestone of similar age to the Solnhofen Limestone, so it presented an opportunity for a graphic rival French story.

Pterodactyls in popular culture

A number of creatures in popular culture are called pterodactyls. Often, these creatures are in fact pteranodons.

  • French comic book artist Jean 'Moebius' Giraud has featured pterodactyl-like creatures which appear to be made of concrete in several of his works, including Arzach and The Incal.
  • The pterodactyl is the power source of the Pink Ranger in the television series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. (The animal was actually a pteranodon, but it was thought that children might be confused with "Mastodon" and "Pteranodon" right after each other in the morphing order, so the pterodactyl was chosen instead; in the show it derived from, Kyouryuu Sentai ZyuRanger, the creature was indeed a pteranodon.) Another pterodactyl, known as the Pterazord, is used by the Yellow Ranger in Power Rangers: Dino Thunder.
  • Petrie in The Land Before Time films is called by most a pterodactyl, and so is Pterri on Pee Wee's Playhouse .
  • The Dinobot Swoop from The Transformers is often called a pterodactyl, however he most resembled a pteranodon when transformed.
  • In the Mac OS X game Nanosaur 2, the player takes the form of a Pterodactyl.
  • At MIT, the pterodactyl is the unofficial mascot of chemical engineering students. The mascot is named the "Course X Pterodactyl" (referring to the department number (ten) of the chemical engineering department).
  • The horror film Pterodactyl.
  • The band Pterodactyl.
  • Though only referred to as "gwangi", the dinosaurs in Steve Berman's short story "Secrets of the Gwangi" that hunt a pair of gay cowboys are pterodactyls.
  • Torchwood, a Doctor Who spin-off, features one as a pet.
  • In the arcade classic Joust the invincable Pterodactyl swoops in and dismounts you if you do not complete the level quickly.

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