The shape of pterosaur evolution: evidence from the fossil record


  • Present address: Robert L. Nudds, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Jacksons Mill, PO Box 88, Sackville St, Manchester M60 1QD, UK.

  • Present address: A. J. McGowan, Institut fur palaeontologie, Museum fur Naturkunde, Invalidenstrasse 43, Berlin D-10115, Germany.

Gareth J. Dyke, School of Biology and Environmental Science, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
Tel.: +353 1 716 2195; fax: +353 1 716 1152; e-mail:


Abstract Although pterosaurs are a well-known lineage of Mesozoic flying reptiles, their fossil record and evolutionary dynamics have never been adequately quantified. On the basis of a comprehensive data set of fossil occurrences correlated with taxon-specific limb measurements, we show that the geological ages of pterosaur specimens closely approximate hypothesized patterns of phylogenetic divergence. Although the fossil record has expanded greatly in recent years, collectorship still approximates a sigmoid curve over time as many more specimens (and thus taxa) still remain undiscovered, yet our data suggest that the pterosaur fossil record is unbiased by sites of exceptional preservation (lagerstätte). This is because as new species are discovered the number of known formations and sites yielding pterosaur fossils has also increased – this would not be expected if the bulk of the record came from just a few exceptional faunas. Pterosaur morphological diversification is, however, strongly age biased: rarefaction analysis shows that peaks of diversity occur in the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous correlated with periods of increased limb disparity. In this respect, pterosaurs appear unique amongst flying vertebrates in that their disparity seems to have peaked relatively late in clade history. Comparative analyses also show that there is little evidence that the evolutionary diversification of pterosaurs was in any way constrained by the appearance and radiation of birds.