Rhamphorhynchus – Well Preserved Fossils Tell Stories

Rhamphorhynchus DrawingRhamphorhynchus was a long-tailed pterosaur who lived 150 million years ago. The name Rhamphorhynchus translates to “beak snout”. It was shaped like a beak and was filled with lots of sharp needle-like teeth. This suggests that their diet consisted mainly of fish. Unlike most pterosaurs, their tail was long and stiff, and shaped like a diamond. A lot is known about the appearance of this pterosaur due to superb fossil remains found across Europe. These fossils include complete skeletons (a rarity for most species) as well as wing membrane impressions. Rhamphorhynchus didn’t have feathers and isn’t the ancestor of modern birds like Archaeopteryx or Velociraptor, but had skin-covered wings like bats.

 

Rhamphorhynchus FossilsThere have been fossils discovered that were drastically different sizes, and these were originally thought to represent different species. However, in the late 90’s, it was argued that they were simply different ages of the same species, and that’s the theory that many work with today. When very young, the baby Rhamphorhynchus’ eyes were large and their beak snouts were short. They just had nubs instead of teeth. The diamond at the end of their tail is more like an oval when they’re little and transitions into what is eventually a triangle in older age. The beak snout also develops a hook as the animal gets older. Basically, you could say that the older they are, the pointier they get.

 

Are you ready to hear a really cute fun fact now? The young Rhamphorhynchus is called a flapling.

Paleoartists often depict Rhamphorhynchus as diving down close to the water from the air to catch fish, but another situation is probably more likely. Their short legs and short torso suggest that they could swim, and did most or all of their hunting in the water, then launching themselves up into the air once they’re done. If they did swim, it could help explain why they have such a well-preserved fossil record. Being near water often could lead to their getting buried in wet sediments, making it easier to be preserved.

Three Fossil Species TogetherOne of the most interesting fossil finds was described in 2012. This limestone slab shows three animals together, Rhamphorhynchus, a small fish Leptolepides, and a large fish Aspidorhynchus. Rhamphorhynchus is part way through swallowing the small fish, and the teeth of Aspidorhynchus are piercing the wing membrane of Rhamphorhynchus. The large fish probably preyed on the pterosaur, just as the pterosaur preyed on the smaller fish. Scientists speculate that while Rhamphorhynchus was being attacked by Aspidorhynchus, they floated into an area where the fish couldn’t get enough oxygen. With the weight of the fish hanging onto their wing, and the damage inflicted by the bite, Rhamphorhynchus couldn’t fly out of the water and so also died. The story is a little grim, as I suppose any story told from fossils are, because the animal has to die for us to know, but very interesting nevertheless.

 

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