An article published in the journal “Fossil Record” reports a study on the oldest pterodactyl fossils discovered so far. A team of researchers examined a sub-adult specimen of Pterodactylus antiquus (Photo courtesy Augustin et al., all rights reserved) discovered in central Bavaria, Germany, which dates back to the sage known as the Kimmeridgian, part of the Upper Jurassic period. So far, the specimens dating from the Tithonian age, the next and last of the Jurassic period. This specimen is one of the best-preserved pterodactyl specimens, which is another reason why this discovery is important.
Pterodactylus antiquus, commonly known as pterodactyl, is the only species of a genus of pterosaurs, flying reptiles that lived throughout the Mesozoic era. With its wingspan that could be just over a meter, it’s a small species compared to many other pterosaurs but the discovery of several very well-preserved specimens, including some juveniles, offered a lot of information about it.
The first pterodactyl fossils were discovered in the late 18th century and the first classification came in 1809. However, so far, the specimens dated to the end of the Jurassic period, in the Tithonian age, but now a new specimen that is older was found.
Pterodactyl fossils have been discovered mainly in Bavaria, and in that region, in 2014, a specimen was discovered in the Torleite Formation, near the town of Painten. It dates back to about 152 million years ago, during the Kimmeridgian age. This makes it the oldest pterodactyl specimen discovered so far.
This pterodactyl specimen is almost perfectly preserved, as only very small parts of a jaw and tibias are missing. The anatomical position of the bones is also correct and this is positive since it can happen that external factors cause displacement of the bones.
The available pterodactyl specimens are partly adults and partly immature distributed over various ages of growth but in a non-homogeneous way, as they’re concentrated on some rather precise sizes. The Painten specimen is between two of these sizes, making it rare.
Over the course of more than two centuries, the classification of pterodactyls within the pterosaur group varied as advances were made through the discovery of new species. Pterodactyls were the first pterosaurs discovered and only after a few decades did the discovery of fossils of very different flying reptile species lead to another classification with the creation of the order of pterosaurs.
Various controversies emerged even in recent years regarding the number of pterodactyl species with Pterodactylus antiquus remaining the official one and other species proposed over the years with discussions and disagreements among paleontologists. In some cases, the doubts concerned non-adult specimens, and this increases the importance of the discovery of the Painten specimen, almost perfect and therefore identifiable with reasonable certainty. It probably won’t solve all the controversies but it will help classify incomplete fossils.