Skip to content


Pteranodon skull

Fun Facts

Pteranodons are not dinosaurs, though they lived during the Mesozoic. They are a separate group of reptiles, which includes the pterodactyls.

NAME: Pteranodon, Meaning: Toothless wing

Pronounced: tare-Ann-oh-don

Named and first described by Othniel C Marsh in 1876

DIET: Fish, perhaps small land animals

SIZE: Wingspan: Males to 18 ft (5.6 m); females to 12 ft (3.8 m), Weight: Weight is unknown, estimates have ranged widely

WHEN IT LIVED: Late Cretaceous, 86 – 84.5 million years ago

WHERE IT LIVED: North America, mostly central North America which was covered by the sea at the time. Fossils have been found in Kansas, Alabama, Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Similar animals have been found in Arizona and New Mexico.

Fast Facts:

Pteranodons, like other pterodactyls, may have been covered with “fur.” This would have acted to smooth the profile of the animal in flight like feathers smooth the body of birds. The pterodactyl fur wasn’t like mammal hair, or like dinosaurs’ feathers.

Our model Pteranodon flies outside the Museum, in the courtyard.

Pteranodon: The Magnificent Flying Reptile of the Mesozoic Skies


Pteranodon, the majestic flying reptile of the Mesozoic era, has long captured the fascination of scientists and the general public alike.

These incredible creatures, part of a group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs, ruled the skies during the Late Cretaceous period, approximately 86 to 84 million years ago. With their impressive wingspans, unique anatomy, and aerial abilities, Pteranodon was one of the most remarkable animals to have ever soared through Earth’s ancient skies.

Taxonomy and Classification

Pteranodon is a genus of pterosaurs, a group of winged reptiles that thrived during the Mesozoic era. Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs but are closely related and belong to the same archosaur group, which includes dinosaurs, crocodiles, and birds.

The genus Pteranodon was first described by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1876 based on fossils found in North America. It is a well-known and widely studied pterosaur, contributing valuable insights into the biology and behavior of these ancient flying reptiles.

Anatomy and Physical Characteristics

Pteranodon was characterized by its distinct anatomy, well-adapted for a life of flight. It had a large, elongated head with a pointed beak, which was likely used for catching and consuming fish, its primary food source.

The most striking feature of Pteranodon was its enormous wingspan, which could reach up to 20 feet (6 meters) in some species. The elongated fourth finger of each wing supported a membranous wing structure, allowing it to glide and soar through the skies with exceptional agility.

Flight Adaptations

Pteranodon‘s flight adaptations were exceptional and allowed it to be a highly efficient and skilled flyer. Its lightweight skeleton, hollow bones, and air-filled crests reduced its overall weight, enabling it to remain airborne for extended periods. Birds today exhibit similar characteristics.

The wing structure of Pteranodon was well-suited for gliding and soaring, and it likely used updrafts and thermals to stay aloft with minimal effort. Its large wingspan and wing shape provided excellent lift, allowing it to cover vast distances and navigate the ancient aerial landscape with ease.

Paleoecology and Paleoenvironment

Pteranodon inhabited the coastal regions of the Western Interior Seaway, an extensive inland sea that divided North America during the Late Cretaceous period. Fossils of Pteranodon have been found in what is now Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming, and other parts of the United States. It probably soared over Arizona as well.

The Western Interior Seaway was teeming with marine life, providing abundant opportunities for Pteranodon to feed on fish and other marine creatures. The vast, open waters of the seaway also offered ample space for these flying reptiles to soar and glide, making it an ideal habitat for Pteranodon.

Feeding Behavior

Pteranodon was a piscivorous predator, meaning it primarily fed on fish. Its elongated beak and sharp teeth were well-suited for capturing slippery prey from the waters below.

Pteranodon likely employed a fishing strategy known as skimming, where it would fly low over the water’s surface, using its beak to snatch fish near the water’s surface. A group of birds called Skimmers fishes in this way today.

Its aerial prowess and keen eyesight allowed it to spot schools of fish from the air, making it a highly successful predator in its aquatic habitat.

Sexual Dimorphism and Crest Variation

One of the intriguing aspects of Pteranodon is the sexual dimorphism observed in some species. Skulls of male and female individuals of these Pteranodon species exhibit different crests, with males having larger and more prominent crests than females.

The function of these crests remains a subject of scientific debate, with hypotheses ranging from display for courtship or territorial purposes to thermoregulation and buoyancy, and control during flight.

Models of Pteranodon have been flown by remote control, and the crests do seem to act as a rudder in flight.

Social Behavior

Pteranodon is believed to have been a social animal, with evidence of group nesting sites discovered at certain fossil localities. These communal nesting sites suggest that Pteranodon may have exhibited some level of social behavior, with individuals forming colonies for breeding and rearing their offspring.

The precise nature and complexity of Pteranodon‘s social interactions is still an area of ongoing research and discovery.

Scientific Significance

Pteranodon holds immense scientific significance as one of the most well-known and extensively studied pterosaurs. Its exceptional flight adaptations and unique anatomy offer valuable insights into the evolutionary history of pterosaurs and the development of powered flight in vertebrates.

By studying Pteranodon fossils and comparing them to other pterosaur species, researchers gain critical information about the diversity, adaptations, and ecological roles of these ancient flying reptiles.

Extinction and Legacy

Like all pterosaurs, Pteranodon became extinct with the non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period, approximately 66 million years ago.

Despite its extinction, Pteranodon and other pterosaurs left an indelible legacy in Earth’s history as the first vertebrates to achieve powered flight. Their unique adaptations and remarkable aerial abilities continue to inspire research into the origins and evolution of flight in vertebrates.


Pteranodon, the magnificent flying reptile of the Mesozoic skies, exemplifies the wonder and diversity of life that populates our planet, both in the past and present. With its enormous wingspan, remarkable flight adaptations, and specialized feeding behavior, Pteranodon was a true marvel of evolution.