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This is Harpactognathus, a rhamphorhynchid pterosaur from the Morrison Formation of the late Jurassic Period. It was one of the largest, if not THE largest, pterosaurs that called the Morrison Formation home. Although it is only known from fragmentary remains, including a large chunk of its upper jaw, paleontologists believe that Harpactognathus had an 8-foot wingspan, making it the size of an eagle. As to how long it would be, that’s uncertain. Rhamphorhynchids are known for having long tails, often ending in diamond-shaped or kite-shaped fins, which were likely brightly colored. Unfortunately, no remains of Harpactongathus’ tail have been found yet. Based upon the appearance of its skull, with long interlocking teeth resembling a Venus fly trap, it is almost certain that Harpactognathus was a fish-eater.
There have been numerous comparisons made over the years between Late Jurassic North America and the modern-day African savanna. Therefore, I decided to portray Harpactognathus with a color scheme similar to the African Fishing Eagle. This drawing was made with a combination of No. 2 pencil, No. 3 pencil, colored pencils, and markers.
Pterosaurs were prehistoric winged reptiles distantly related to the dinosaurs – they were NOT actually flying dinosaurs, despite what some people might tell you. Pterosaurs are broadly categorized into two biological groups called “sub-orders”: the pterodactyloids (this is where the word “pterodactyl” comes from) and the rhamphorhynchoids. They came in all shapes and sizes, from sparrow-sized ones to creatures as large as fighter jets.
The Mesozoic Era, the geologic time frame when dinosaurs lived, is divided up into three “periods”: the Triassic Period, the Jurassic Period, and the Cretaceous Period. Pterosaurs first appeared during the late Triassic Period, and likely evolved from small tree-dwelling gliding reptiles.
The pterosaur depicted in this blog post’s associated image comes from the late Jurassic Period. One of the best places to find fossils dated to this time is in western North America, and it is referred to as the Morrison Formation – a layer of rock stretching throughout much of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado where fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have been found dated to the late Jurassic, spanning from 155-145 MYA.
The pterosaur that you see here is named Dermodactylus montanus. It was a small pterodactyloid pterosaur with a 3-foot wingspan, about the size of a hawk. So far, the only fossil collected of this species was a single finger bone found in 1878, which is currently housed within the collections of the Smithsonian Institution (collections ID: USNM-V16797). No other pterosaur fossils found within the Morrison Formation have been ascribed to this genus since then. Many paleontologists today classify Dermodactylus as a nomen dubium – a classification used when scientists aren’t sure if a certain species or genus actually existed. The finger bone in question might have come from another pterosaur, and was misidentified. This drawing was made with No. 2 pencil and Crayola and Prismacolor colored pencils.
Dermodactylus. © Jason R. Abdale. April 24, 2012.
If you want to know more about pterosaurs, I highly suggest you check out the WordPress blog “Archosaur Musings”, run by British paleontologist Dave Hone: http://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/
Also, check out Mark Witton’s (another British pterosaur expert) blog: http://markwitton-com.blogspot.com/