Palaeohistology of the bones of pterosaurs (Reptilia: Archosauria): anatomy, ontogeny, and biomechanical implications


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Thin sections from long bones of specimens representing pterosaurs ranging from the Early Jurassic to the latest Cretaceous provide a profile of bone histology across a range of sizes, skeletal elements, growth stages, and phylogenetic positions. Most pterosaur bone is fibro-lamellar, organized in an unusual way that suggests high growth rates through ontogeny. Fibro-lamellar deposits are finished by a relatively abrupt deceleration or cessation of growth represented by lamellar, poorly vascularized subperiosteal bone in what appear to be adults. Pterosaurs had the thinnest bone walls of any tetrapods; they complemented high rates of periosteal deposition with almost equally high rates of endosteal erosion. Pterosaurs show a great variety of histologic features that include articular calcified cartilage, sub-chondral bone plates, trabecular bone struts and related internal supports, and secondary deposition and remodeling of bone. They remodeled their bones internally by (1) depositing endosteal bone coatings on the inner cortex and over struts of pre-existing internal bone, (2) secondarily filling bone spaces, and (3) Haversian reworking. The construction of these struts reflects both developmental patterns of bone construction and biomechanical function. Alternating plywood-like layers of bone, heretofore undescribed in tetrapods, provided strength, as did the obliquely oriented system of reticular blood vessels in the bones. The distribution and ontogenetic features of pterosaur bone tissues, when combined with other evidence, suggest generally high growth rates, high metabolic levels, altricial birth, and extended parental care.