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Chasing Ancient Fliers
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Chasing Ancient Fliers

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By Richard Monastersky Photographs by Jonathan Blair

Largest animals that ever flew, pterosaurs ruled the skies for 150 million years before their sudden demise.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Like their cousins the dinosaurs, pterosaurs stand out as one of evolution’s great success stories. They first appeared during the Triassic period, 215 million years ago, and thrived for 150 million years before going extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period. Their endurance record is almost inconceivable compared with the span of humans, whose ancestors started walking upright less than four million years ago. Uncontested in the air, pterosaurs colonized all continents and evolved a vast array of shapes and sizes. Of the more than 120 named species, the smallest pterosaur measured no bigger than a sparrow; the largest reached a wingspan of nearly 40 feet (12 meters), wider than an F-16 fighter.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Long before Jurassic Park made movie millions putting computer-generated flesh on extinct animals, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, imagined an encounter between people and pterosaurs. His 1912 tale The Lost World includes what pterosaur expert Peter Wellnhofer calls a “thoroughly convincing and realistic” description of a living pterodactyl discovered by a group of English explorers on a remote Amazonian plateau. Nearly 60 years after Conan Doyle published the story of this imaginary expedition, life imitated art: Pterosaur remains were actually discovered on the Araripe Plateau in northeastern Brazil. Fossils of pterosaurs that probably looked very much like Conan Doyle’s prehistoric creature—with wingspans of 20 feet (6 meters) and jaws full of piercing teeth—continue to be found there today.

—Lynne Warren

The Pterosaur Home Page
The flying reptiles of the Mesozoic are the focus of this website, which includes information on the family tree, origins, and behavior of pterosaurs.

Pterosauria Translation and Pronunciation Guide
Learn not only how to say Quetzalcoatlus and other pterosaur names but also what they mean.

Crocodile Fotos by Jonathan Blair
Jonathan Blair presents a portfolio of photographs shot on National Geographic assignments.


Bennett, S. Christopher. Pterosaurs: The Flying Reptiles. Franklin Watts, 1995. (Juvenile)

Padian, Kevin. “Pterosauria,” Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. Academic Press, 1997.

Wellnhofer, Peter. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. Crescent Books, 1991.


Dinosaur Giants: Found! National Geographic Videos, 2000.

Sloan, Christopher P. “Feathers for T. Rex?,” National Geographic (November 1999), 98-107.

Webster, Donovan. “Debut Sue,” National Geographic (June 1999), 24-37.

Webster, Donovan. “A Dinosaur Named Sue,” National Geographic (June 1999), 46-59.

Chiappe, Luis. “Dinosaur Embryos,” National Geographic (December 1998), 34-41.

Ackerman, Jennifer. “Dinosaurs Take Wing,” National Geographic (July 1998), 74-99.

Kostyal, K.M. “Digging Dinosaurs,” National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1998), 34, 36-38.

Dinosaur Hunters. National Geographic Videos, 1997.

Kashi, Ed, and others. “Extinct Reptile Makes Flying Comeback,” National Geographic World (April 1986), 32-36.

Sloan, Charles H., and others. “Fossil Hunters Find Flying Reptile,” National Geographic World (November 1975), 16-21.


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