In the late Jurassic period, a time when the world was a subtropical paradise, the Solnhofen archipelago in what is now Bavaria, Germany, served as a playground for an array of flying reptiles. Amidst the feathered dinosaurs and small predators, stood a unique species, the Petrodactyle wellnhoferi, or as it’s more affectionately known, the “Elvis” of pterosaurs. With a wingspan of six feet and a prominent cranial crest, this creature dominated the skies over 145 million years ago, making it a standout in a time when flying beasts ruled the world.
In a recent study published in the June 2023 edition of Paleontologia Electronica, paleontologists unveiled the discovery of this unique creature. Not only was it larger than most pterosaurs of its time, but it also sported a distinctive head crest that earned it its rockstar nickname. This crest, according to David Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London and the author of the study, likely served a crucial social role, playing a part in mating rituals and other social interactions.
The Era of Pterosaurs: Unveiling the ‘Elvis’ of the Jurassic Sky
In the late Jurassic period, about 145 million years ago, the world was a warmer, subtropical place teeming with various flying reptiles. The Solnhofen archipelago in present-day Bavaria, Germany, was a hotbed of these ancient airborne creatures, living alongside feathered dinosaurs like Alcomonavis and small predators such as Compsognathus. Among these prehistoric beasts, one species stood out – the Petrodactyle wellnhoferi, aptly nicknamed "Elvis."
A Unique Discovery of a Majestic Creature
A study published in June 2023 in Paleontologia Electronica unveiled the discovery of this particular species. Elvis was larger than most pterosaurs of its time, distinguished by a very prominent cranial crest, likely used for social signaling, mating, and other social roles. "Its big head crest made it stand out," says study author David Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London.
The Elvis pterosaur, found in a thick slab of limestone, had a wingspan of approximately six feet. While this size was considered large for the period, it was considerably smaller than the pterosaurs that would appear later, such as Quetzalcoatlus, which boasted a wingspan of around 40 feet.
P. Wellnhoferi: The Pterosaur Flamingo
According to Natalia Jagielska, a Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh studying Jurassic pterosaurs evolution, Elvis belonged to a group of Ctenochasmatoids living on coastal islands. These species had long legs and some filter-feeding capabilities, earning them a comparison as "pterosaur’s equivalent to flamingoes."
P. wellnhoferi’s legs were probably used for wading in waters while searching for food. Its well-preserved jaw structure revealed an intriguing arrangement of short, sharp teeth. Despite its delicate and lanky jaw, Elvis was a capable predator that likely fed on fish, crustaceans, and tiny dinosaurs, thanks to its "anchored musculature" that provided a strong bite force.
The Mysterious Extinction of P. Wellnhoferi
The reason behind the extinction of P. wellnhoferi remains unclear due to the discovery of only one specimen. However, we know that many pterosaurs went extinct and re-emerged during the 150 million years they graced the skies. They ranged in size from a small bird to the size of a fighter jet and co-existed with dinosaurs.
It is widely accepted that pterosaurs, dinosaurs’ close cousins, all went extinct 65 million years ago following a catastrophic asteroid impact. Large pterosaurs likely lost their large prey, while smaller ones found themselves in direct competition with birds. But in the end, birds emerged victorious in the battle for survival.
The discovery of the Elvis pterosaur adds to our understanding of the rich diversity among these ancient flying creatures. It serves as a testament to the adaptability and resilience of life in different periods of Earth’s history. However, their extinction also serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitable impact of environmental changes. We must continue to investigate these ancient creatures to gain further insights into our own era and the future of the planet’s biodiversity.