PSA: The Truth About Pterodactyls

A couple of years ago, I was playing a game at a small social gathering of people–most of whom we had met at the singles ward. I don’t remember the particulars, but we were all sitting in a circle and someone was supposed to name something like 17 dinosaurs.

“Stegosaurus,” she said, counting on her fingers, “T. rex, triceratops, pterodactyl,—-“

“Pterodactyls aren’t dinosaurs,” I interrupted. She wasn’t on my team, so not only did I need to correct her egregious error, I naturally had to try to get her to lose.

I immediately felt like a guy wearing a Mitt Romney t-shirt at a Trump rally.

“What?!” Everyone’s incredulous eyes were on me. “If they’re not dinosaurs, then what are they?”

“Flying reptiles.” I admit—my answer could have been better.

“No, they’re dinosaurs,” they scoffed at me. “Flying reptiles? You’re an idiot.” And then the game resumed.

Okay, okay, they didn’t call me an idiot, but some were probably thinking it. And yes, years have passed since this incident, but I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget how I was attacked and ridiculed for speaking the truth.

Yes, the truth. That’s right, game night friends/acquaintances. I’m happy to say that you were all wrong. And you all should have lost that game, gone to your homes and shut your mouths in everlasting silence on dinosaurs (and pterodactyls) til you had learned something. (I couldn’t help but paraphrase Joseph Smith here for dramatic, non-contemptuous effect)

A pterosaur named Arambourgiania compared to a T. rex, balaur, and, apparently, Sherlock Holmes. 

Dear Reader, if there’s anything at all that you learn from this fledgling blog of mine, I sincerely hope it’s this: that pterodactyls are not dinosaurs.

Now, I know this information runs counter to just about everything you’ve known since your dino-obsessed childhood, but it’s the truth. No number of “dinosaur” toy sets containing that one cool-looking pterodactyl can change the solemn, verifiable fact that pterosaurs are not and never have been dinosaurs.

First off, I guess we should define “dinosaur”. In 1842, Sir Richard Owen coined the name dinosaur to describe the group of animals that included megalosaurus, iguanodon, and hylaeosaurus. Pterosaurs didn’t make the cut. And never was the term “dinosaur” used to define all creatures that lived on earth at a certain time. It’s a family name. Only those in the dinosaur family get to be called dinosaurs, regardless of when they lived.

Although they aren’t dinosaurs, pterosaurs are one of the closest non-dinosaur relative to dinos. And although it would be incorrect to say that both velociraptors and pterodactyls are dinosaurs, you could say that both are avemetatarsalians, or that both are archosaurs. This is because dinos and pterosaurs share a common ancestor. They’re cousins.

Pterosaurs and dinosaurs are both archosaurs, but pterosaurs are not dinosaurs, nor are dinosaurs pterosaurs. They’re cousins.

Now, here’s another really important thing everyone needs to understand. Pterodactyls are just one group of a larger group of animals called pterosaurs. You might’ve noticed that word–“pterosaur”–already slipped out in the preceding paragraphs. While all pterodactyls are pterosaurs, not all pterosaurs are pterodactyls. In fact, most things you probably automatically call pterodactyls on sight are not pterodactyls at all, but some other type of pterosaur. It’s like calling all rectangles squares. 

Yeah, don’t do that.

Image of many different types of pterosaurs. Note that only one of them is named Pterodactylus.

Now that we’ve been on the subject of what’s a certain thing or not, let’s continue our discussion as it pertains to dinosaurs. Pterosaurs aren’t the only animals that are regularly mistaken for dinosaurs. Some common animals you might come across that also are not dinosaurs include: plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, dimetrodon (really, look it up!), ichthyosaurs, mesosaurs, lizards, Komodo dragons, turtles, wooly mammoths, and saber-toothed cats (those last 2 are mammals, people!). A special case is crocodiles, which are not dinosaurs, but are archosaurs, being close cousins to both dinos and pterosaurs.

How the various reptiles are related to dinosaurs without actually being dinosaurs themselves.

Another thing you might be wondering is: Are pterodactyls birds? Not at all! But birds are an interesting case because birds actually ARE dinosaurs, making them related to pterodactyls in the way that they share an archosaurian ancestor around 250 million years ago. In fact, birds are the ONLY dinosaurs that survived the asteroid hit, and are therefore the ONLY dinosaurs we still have among us today. Moment of silence, please, for the rest of those glorious prehistoric beasts….

Well, I hope you learned something in this public service announcement. Pterodactyls aren’t dinosaurs or birds. Not all pterosaurs are pterodactyls. And not all the things you might think are dinosaurs actually are dinosaurs. Be careful before you just start throwing around classifications out there! Check first to make sure that thing really is a dinosaur before you start declaring lineages!

I always like to relate my posts back to the gospel, so here’s something for you to chew on:

In a parable, Jesus compared the Saints of the latter days to a carnivorous theropod dinosaur. But don’t take my word for it: JS-M 1:27.


Sources and Notes

5 thoughts on “PSA: The Truth About Pterodactyls

  1. That was awesome! I think about dinos everytime you watch a bird bob it’s head around. One day it will be amazing to see how the ancient dinos and archosaurs lived and what they really looked like, damaging forever one of my favorite movies of my childhood, Jurassic Park.

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    1. Thanks man! We have chickens in our backyard, and when they’re hunting for bugs they go into full-on dinosaur mode. It’s actually kind of frightening. Reminds you of Jurassic Park’s velociraptors in the kitchen scene! But I hear you. I’d love to see what those creatures looked like in real life.

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  2. You made me a convert to this pterodactyl truth of yours. I have a feeling this knowledge will come in handy with my nephews. It’s also a good metaphor. Why should I be embarrassed for sharing the truth with a troglodyte who doesn’t like contradictory information?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha thanks for your comment. I’ve written a lot of things on this blog, but probably one of the things I feel strongest about is this truth about pterodactyls! The world (including all nephews—mine too) need to know.

      And I don’t think you should ever be embarrassed for sharing the truth. Truth is indeed a beautiful thing.

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