Nav: Home

Jurassic diet: Why our knowledge of what ancient pterosaurs ate might be wrong

June 07, 2018

  • One group of extinct animals where our dietary knowledge is lacking are the pterosaurs - extinct flying reptiles who lived in the Mesozoic Period 215-66 million years ago
  • New research has revealed that the diets of pterosaurs are largely based on ideas that have been uncritically accepted for decades, or even centuries, and may often be wrong
  • Blockbuster film Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has recently released in cinemas and features a variety of dining dinosaurs and pterosaurs


Image of the giant azhdarchid pterosaur Hatzegopteryx is available here*: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/5v14al2ddrqxtqr/AAAedthPuLVUfHClHdDfDicsa?dl=0

*Picture Caption: Restoration of the giant azhdarchid pterosaur Hatzegopteryx catching an unsuspecting dinosaur for supper. In addition to carnivory, azhdarchids have been hypothesised to have eaten fish, insects, fruits, hard-shelled organisms or a combination of them all. Credit: Mark P. Witton/CC BY 4.0.

Whenever we think about extinct animals we often imagine them eating their favourite meals, whether it be plants, other animals or a combination of both.

But are our ideas about extinct diets grounded within scientific reasoning, or are they actually little more than conjecture and speculation?

New research, published in Biological Reviews and led by a team of palaeobiologists from the University of Leicester, has revealed that the diets of pterosaurs are largely based on ideas that have been uncritically accepted for decades, or even centuries - and may often be wrong.

The study shows that one group of extinct animals where our dietary knowledge is lacking are the pterosaurs; extinct flying reptiles who lived in the Mesozoic Period 215-66 million years ago.

The research involved a comprehensive analysis of the scientific literature, summarising over 300 statements from 126 studies about the diets of pterosaurs, and the types of evidence used to support ideas of what they ate.

The research shows the vast majority of ideas about pterosaur diet are based on inferences drawn from modern organisms and/or the environments in which pterosaur fossils are preserved. These are not always reliable.

Jordan Bestwick, a PhD student from the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, and lead author of the study, said: "Working out the diets of extinct animals is vitally important for understanding how they fitted within their respective ecosystems, which can tell us about how present ecosystems function and may change in the future.

"Being able to robustly test ideas is a key attribute of the scientific process, and helps us fully understand what we can know about the lifestyles of extinct animals, and what we can never know."

Analysis reveals that over sixty percent of all hypotheses of pterosaur diet are based on simplistic anatomical comparisons between pterosaurs and modern organisms, particularly of the skulls and teeth. A key problem with this is that many of these interpretations are difficult, if not impossible, to test.

Jordan explained: "The potential range of pterosaur diets has been reviewed in the past but little attention has been paid to the evidence, if any, that support dietary interpretations. We realised that not only was it important to discover what we know about pterosaur diets, but to also find out how we know what we know about pterosaur diets.

"We find for some pterosaurs there is strong agreement among researchers as to their likely diet. Pteranodontids for example, which include one of the best known pterosaurs, Pteranodon, are almost unanimously agreed to have been fish feeders, an idea that is independently supported by multiple lines of evidence.

"In contrast, there is far less agreement as to what the giant azhdarchid pterosaurs ate. Azhdarchids can reach sizes of up to 10 metres or more in wingspan, like Hatzegopteryx, and there have been at least six different diets argued for these pterosaurs."

This is not to say there are no methods or techniques that yield reliable evidence for understanding diets in these extinct animals. Biomechanical analysis of how hard pterosaurs could bite, and flight modelling that predicts how pterosaurs may have foraged for food have proven useful for understanding what some pterosaurs may or may not have eaten.

However techniques like these are employed in a small minority of studies and as such, it is currently not possible to identify the biological reasons that might explain the range and diversity of pterosaurs diets.

Dr David Hone from the Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved in the study, commented: "This is an important summary of what we know (and what we don't) about what these animals fed on. This gives pterosaur researchers an excellent and critical starting point and a roadmap for future research on the diets of pterosaurs, and more broadly for all extinct animals."
-end-
The paper, 'Pterosaur dietary hypotheses: a review of ideas and approaches', published in the journal Biological Reviews, is available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/brv.12431 / doi:10.1111/brv.12431

University of Leicester

Related Diet Articles:

Can your diet help protect the environment?
If Americans adhere to global dietary recommendations designed to reduce the impact of food production and consumption, environmental degradation could be reduced by up to 38%, according to a new paper published in the journal Environmental Justice.
Diet may help preserve cognitive function
According to a recent analysis of data from two major eye disease studies, adherence to the Mediterranean diet - high in vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil -- correlates with higher cognitive function.
Diet quality of young people in US
This observational study used national survey data from young people up to age 19 to estimate the overall diet quality of children and teens in the United States and to explore how diet quality has changed from 1999 to 2016.
The keto diet can lead to flu-like symptoms during the first few weeks on the diet
A ketogenic diet can lead to several flu-like symptoms within the first few weeks on the diet.
Reconstructing the diet of fossil vertebrates
Paleodietary studies of the fossil record are impeded by a lack of reliable and unequivocal tracers.
Your gums reveal your diet
Sweet soft drinks and lots of sugar increase the risk of both dental cavities and inflammation of the gums -- known as periodontal diseases -- and if this is the case, then healthy eating habits should be prioritized even more.
Poor diet can lead to blindness
An extreme case of 'fussy' or 'picky' eating caused a young patient's blindness, according to a new case report published today [2 Sep 2019] in Annals of Internal Medicine.
New research on diet and supplements during pregnancy and beyond
The foods and nutrients a woman consumes while pregnant have important health implications for her and her baby.
Special issue: Diet and Health
Diet has major effects on human health. In this special issue of Science, 'Diet and Health,' four Reviews explore the connections between what we eat and our well-being, as well as the continuing controversies in this space.
Should you eat a low-gluten diet?
When healthy people eat a low-gluten and fiber-rich diet compared with a high-gluten diet they experience less intestinal discomfort including less bloating which researchers at University of Copenhagen show are due to changes of the composition and function of gut bacteria.
More Diet News and Diet Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Warped Reality
False information on the internet makes it harder and harder to know what's true, and the consequences have been devastating. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around technology and deception. Guests include law professor Danielle Citron, journalist Andrew Marantz, and computer scientist Joy Buolamwini.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.