Pterosaurs are some of the most fascinating ancient reptiles. They were not dinosaurs, but they were also not birds. In fact, they evolved flight entirely separately from birds, but like birds came in many shapes and sizes. Pteranodon is the best known of all the pterosaurs, originally discovered in 1870 and named in 1876 by famed paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh during the “Bone Wars.”
Pteranodon lived near the end of the Cretaceous period and was one of the largest pterosaurs, with a wingspan that ranged in adults from 10 to 20 feet, with males on the high end of the estimate, females on the low end. Scientists have concluded that sexual dimorphism was quite visible in Pteranodon–males were much larger and had large head crests upon reaching adulthood. While the Jurassic World film depicted large Pteranodons swooping down and picking up and carrying fully grown humans, there is no chance that would have been possible in real life. Even the largest estimates for Pteranodon put them at no more than about 200 lbs, and their beaks were certainly not designed to pick up large objects.
They were designed for spearing fish, however, and Pteranodon is considered a piscivore, a carnivore whose diet depends almost entirely on eating fish. Multiple Pteranodon specimens have been found with fish bones and scales in the middle of their bodies, likely where the stomach would have been. Fossils of Pteranodon have been found in deposits that were miles offshore in the large Western Interior Seaway, the ocean that split modern North America into two continents during the Cretaceous period. It is thought that Pteranodon lived in large colonies, like many modern birds. Offshore colonies would have helped protect the young from land predators and given the Pteranodons easy access to the open sea for hunting.
Since its discovery, paleontologists have disagreed over the various genus and species names given to Pteranodon fossils. Those debates continue today, although it is generally accepted now that there were at least two separate Pteranodon species, one older than the other and likely the direct ancestor. The younger species is Pteranodon longiceps, and they feature slightly smaller head crests that point backward. The older species is Pteranodon sternbergi, which feature slightly larger and more upright head crests. There is currently a debate about whether or not Pteranodon sternbergi belongs in its own genus. Some have argued it does, and call this animal Geosternbergia. Either way, it is considered the likely ancestor to the later Pteranodon longiceps.
Fortunately, many museums feature Pteranodon fossils or casts of fossils, and they can be found in several different poses. Scientists have a pretty good understanding of how Pteranodon lived, with hundreds of specimens having been found over a large geographic area of western North America, but mainly in Kansas, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Here are Allosaurus Roar’s Top Dozen Pteranodon displays in North America:
(HM) University of Michigan Museum of Nat. History, Ann Arbor, MI
The Pteranodon at Michigan can be found in the back corner of the gallery of dinosaurs and ancient life, high up on the wall. Posed very similarly to the Pteranodon at the Yale Peabody Museum, this display is not terribly dynamic but it allows visitors to see the bones very clearly.
(HM) Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
Currently off display while the Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Hall is under major renovation, the Pteranodon here is posed exactly like the one at Yale, although I do like the visible “wings” painted in lighter color on the background. I am hoping that when the new hall opens the Pteranodon will be displayed in a more active pose, but we will have to wait until 2019 to find out.
(12) Museum of Ancient Life, Lehi, UT
The Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah is one of the largest dinosaur museums in North America. Among the many fossil and cast skeletons on display are several pterosaurs. The relatively small Pteranodon is shown soaring up above the dinosaurs.
(11) The Field Museum, Chicago, IL
There are three Pteranodon fossil casts flying overhead in the Evolving Planet exhibit at The Field Museum. My favorite is probably the male that is shown with his mouth wide open. It doesn’t look like it’s diving toward the sea, so perhaps it is calling out to one of its companions.
(10) Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON
The Pteranodon at the Royal Ontario Museum hangs high above the displays below and is shown scanning the room, just as it might have when it flew over the water looking for a school of fish below. This Pteranodon is up pretty high, so it is a little harder to get a great view.
(9) Arizona Museum of Natural History, Mesa, AZ
The beautiful Pteranodon (or Geosternbergia) displayed at the Arizona Museum of Natural History is but one of many pterosaurs in the museum’s “Rulers of the Prehistoric Skies” exhibit. This exhibit alone is worth the price of admission, it features numerous fossils and casts of pterosaurs from all over the world all in one room. The giant Quetzalcoatlus in the middle of the room is breathtaking, but my favorite pterosaur fossil here is the rare juvenile Pteranodon they call “Ptweety.”
(8) Univ. of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY
It is very easy to imagine a Pteranodon diving into the water to spear a fish when you look at the one on display at the University of Wyoming Geological Museum. While it is not a large specimen, this adult female is featured in one of the most active pterosaur poses.
(7) Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA
There are a couple of Pteranodon displays at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, but the one I like the best features a Pteranodon in the rather unusual pose of taking off into the sky. This specimen has a very long and sharp beak, but a small headcrest so it is probably an adult female.
(6) Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver, CO
One of the nice things about the great Pteranodon display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is that it is shown in quadrupedal position. Scientists believe that Pteranodon walked using all four limbs, and pterosaur trackways have been found that support this theory. The small headcrest on the Pteranodon in Denver indicates that it was likely a female.
(5) American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
The Pteranodon on display at the AMNH in New York is fantastic. I love the way it is shown swooping above the displays below, it appears to be looking down just as one might imagine it soaring over the Western Interior Seaway looking for fish to hunt. It’s a beautiful fossil, although it hangs quite high and is difficult to see easily. Still, this male Pteranodon fossil is a great display.
(4) Univ. of Kansas Nat. History Museum, Lawrence, KS
I love the Pteranodon at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. Not only is it quite large, it is easy to see the bones that form the wing, which come from an evolved extended finger. The large arm bones on this specimen also hint at the strength that Pteranodon had for propelling itself up and into flight. For many years Pterandon was considered a gliding flyer, but now researchers believe that Pteranodon was capable of swimming and catching food, then using its strong arms to lift itself out of the sea and back into the sky where it could glide but was also capable of flapping its wings to sustain flight.
(3) Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, CT
The Pteranodon on display at the Yale Peabody Museum is a beautiful example of this creature. While the pose is not very dynamic, the skull is impressive with its angular dimensions and beak tilted upwards. The Yale Peabody Museum holds the holotype fossils for the Pteranodon longiceps, which is the type species for Pteranodon.
(2) Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA
The Pteranodon display in Los Angeles is particularly wonderful. Not only is the Pteranodon quite large, it is very well preserved and I love the way it is shown against a beautiful blue background. Unlike many Pteranodon displays, this one is at ground level and has a lot of information so museum visitors can get a great, close-up view of this fascinating creature.
(1) Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Hays, KS
My favorite Pteranodon fossil comes from the museum closest to where many Pterandon specimens have been found in western Kansas. At Fort Hays State University, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History displays the holotype specimen of Pterandon sternbergi (or Geosternbergia). The skull is amazing; the head crest is almost four feet tall and the beak is even longer. I go to the Sternberg Museum about once a year, and every time I visit I am still mesmerized by this wonderful fossil.