In prehistory, Everything's Better with Dinosaurs.
While it is true that our knowledge of prehistoric fauna is steadily improving, the depictions in popular media do not seem to be as up to date with modern science. While dinosaurs are increasingly averting the Science Marches On trope, however, the same cannot be said for the other dominant organisms during their 200-million-year reign. As a case in point, look no further than their close relatives, the pterosaurs — the first vertebrates note that is, animals with backbones to fly.
Of course, nothing adds to a prehistoric atmosphere like tossing in some of these "flying reptiles." However, it's a good idea to take most depictions of pterosaurs with a grain of salt. Most media will ratchet them up to being eagles or bats on crack, snatching prey (like tasty humans) for feeding and being far more agile than they were in real life. Keep in mind that as in the case of most other prehistoric animals, Rule of Cool very much applies here.
If you see a pterosaur represented in any piece of fiction, the odds are good that it will have at least one of the common stereotypical (and inaccurate) traits listed at this website and this website. The contents of these lists are summarized in the folder below.
This is a subtrope of Somewhere, a Paleontologist Is Crying. See Somewhere, an Ornithologist Is Crying for the avian version and Somewhere, a Herpetologist Is Crying for a reptilian version. See also Giant Flyer, All Flyers Are Birds, and Dinosaurs Are Dragons (because pop culture pterodactyls are often surprisingly similar to wyverns).
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List of Common Inaccuracies in Media
Confusing the names "pterosaur" and "pterodactyl" as if they were synonyms. "Pterosaur" is used for the total group of the Mesozoic flying "reptiles"note using "reptile" here in its traditional, non-monophyletic sense. "Pterodactyl" is either a name for a subgroup of pterosaurs or a genus name for a particular pterosaur, Pterodactylus. To put this into perspective, this would be as bad as calling every primate you met a "gorilla," if referring to the genus name, or "ape," if referring to the subgroup name; while it's acceptable to refer to Hominoidea as apes, it's not acceptable to refer to primates as a whole as apes, since monkeys aren't apes. In a similar manner, pterodactyloids were indeed an advanced group of pterosaurs and the word "pterodactyl" can be used to refer to them, but "pterodactyl" and "pterosaur" do not mean the same thing.
Designing the pterosaurs with bat-like wings rather than anatomically correct pterosaur ones. This ranges from having leathery wings made of nothing but skin to having the whole wing membrane being supported by all the fingers. In reality, pterosaur wings were made of tougher, more complicated materials and were supported by one finger. They should also attach at the ankle or at the lower leg, not at the hip, and they should be rounded and smooth, not pointed or angular.
Essentially, Pterosaurs aren't Dinosaurs. Pterosaurs were closely related to the dinosaurs, being more closely related to each other than to modern crocodiles, but pterosaurs were not dinosaurs themselves.
Mix-and-Match Critters. Two pterosaur species will be combined into one hybridised design. This is a particularly good sign that the creators just didn't care, considering how easy it would be to sort out.
Bigger Is Better. The pterosaurs on show will be truly gigantic, far larger than the fossil record can justify. There is some Truth in Television for this belief, as creatures like Quetzalcoatlus currently hold the record for the largest wingspans ever known. However, this is at best 12 metres, and is based on scanty evidence. In fiction, beasts with much larger wingspans are exaggerations. This is all the more obvious when the species being shown didn't even approach that size.
Toothy Bird trope applied to pterosaurs. Specifically, this is when a pterosaur (like the iconic Pteranodon) is shown having teeth, sometimes a horrifying set of gnashers, instead of a toothless beak (the name "pteranodon" actually means "wings without teeth"). Occasionally this can be reversed when a normally toothy pterosaur (like Rhamphorhynchus) looks like it had a run-in with an angry dentist.
Pterosaurs in fiction will grab objects with their feetand hoist them into the air, presumably to be carried away and eaten. Pterosaur feet were designed for quadrupedal walking on the ground, or for climbing vertical objects or branch systems depending on the species note although that claim is subject to controversy. No known pterosaur had prehensile feet with opposable digits, which makes any depiction of pterosaurs picking humans up with their feet inaccurate.
Speaking of diet, pterosaurs are frequently depicted as exclusive fish- or meat-eaters. As an analogy, modern birds and bats don't ONLY eat fish or other animals, even if some species do. Many of the known pterosaur fossil finds do show that some species ate fish, but pterosaur diets were more diverse; other species fed on insects or smaller land vertebrates (Azdarchids like the aforementioned Hatzegopteryx were in fact most likely terrestrial hunters, rather than vulture-like scavengers as is still suggested in modern media), and some species may have eaten fruit and seeds too.
Expect any fictional pterosaur that lands on the ground to be hopelessly lost. Real pterosaurs were more than capable of walking on firm ground — not only were some of them were scarily competent at it, but new evidence now suggests that they could even take off from level ground, using their wings to vault themselves into the air rather like vampire bats do today. Similarly, pterosaurs are frequently depicted as being bipedal like birds; in reality, pterosaurs were quadrupedal, as their musculature is focused on their forelimbs, while their hindlimbs are small, positioned at the very back of their bodies, and quite weak.
On that note, you can expect any fictional pterosaur that finds itself in the water to be rendered temporarily flightless at best, or helplessly drown at worst. This is particularly bad, because not only is it based on nothing, it also has plenty of evidence against it — evidence that isn't even all that recent! In reality, it's been proven by fossilized trackways and oft-forgotten traces of webbing between a fossilized pterosaur's toes that some (though not all) pterosaurs would actually have been very good swimmers, floating on top of the water with their wings tucked close to their bodies like ducks or gulls. In addition, there is ongoing work that strongly suggests most pterosaurs (even those not typically found near aquatic environments) were quite capable of launching from the water if they needed to. The worst danger they would face in this situation would be the predatory aquatic reptiles that lurk beneath the surface.
Portraying pterosaurs as birds or the ancestors of birds — while pterosaurs did fly, the actual ancestors of birds were true dinosaurs-more specifically, the maniraptor dinosaurs. Also, pterosaurs will often be shown to take good care of their eggs in the same way as birds, though more likely they simply laid their eggs and were done with that, like a modern lizard.
InuYasha had a group of demons called 'demon birds'. Despite being called this, they were clearly pteranodon look-alikes. they certainly acted like birds in the way they perched and called, but they curiously had the diet of a vampire bat. They were fairly anatomically inaccurate for a pterosaur, but this can be forgiven as they were demons, not real animals.
Surprisingly averted in the New 52's Teen Titans comics. Bunker is attacked by an anatomically correct Geosternbergia, the only flaw being pointy wings.
Clash of the Dinosaurs has a Quetzalcoatlus that, although featuring some new discoveries about pterosaurs (namely, the catapult way of taking off and the complex nervous system), is also scaly for no good reason, can apparently detect dinosaur urine and other strange fictitious traits that make it look like the pterosaur analogue of a superhero. That's just one of the many problems with this documentary.
It also portrays it as a soaring, raptor-like predator. Which is... unlikely, to say the least. Although things are looking much better than they once did for the flight capabilities of large azhdarchid pterosaurs, their anatomy — particularly of the rather well-preserved Quetzalcoatlus — is rather incompatible with this method of predation. Instead, it's much more likely they fed like cranes — landing, then using their long neck to snatch up smaller prey while their long legs grant them a superior elevated position for doing so.
Walking with Dinosaurs fell somewhat to Science Marches On about its pterosaurs, and the way how they bend the wings when on the ground is still anatomically impossible. They still didn't give much effort into their Quetzalcoatlus, which was just a recolored and slightly tweaked version of the Ornithocheirus model (short neck, teeth and all). On the other hand, they did show several lesser known species of pterosaurs, like said Ornithocheirus, the small South American species Tapejara (based on specimens now reassigned to the genus Tupandactylus), or the early Triassic Peteinosaurus (found mainly in modern day Italy and other parts of Europe and somewhat better known to paleontology fans).
The Ornithocheirus is oversized to be Quetzalcoatlus-sized, and the Pteranodon is placed in Late Cretaceous South America, when it lived in Late Cretaceous North America.
They are more correctly placed in Late Cretaceous North America in the Sea Monsters spinoff.
There are Mark Witton's (an iconic pterosaur expert) comments:
- Under-muscled necks and heads
- Ear openings in the wrong place
- Heads are too small
- The Tapejara/Tupandactylus wings are too long
- The Tapejara/Tupandactylus crest has weird ridges that aren't known in any fossil
- Lack of pycnofibres
- Wing membranes look ok to me. Not sure about the way the wing folds up, though.
- Ornithocheirus is, at best, 6 m across the wings, not 12. No pterosaur seems to have had a 12 m wingspan.
- Body musculature is a bit off
- Terrestrial posture is too sprawled
- Statement that '6 m spans are common' is wrong for the Lower Cretaceous. There were such animals there, but they are much rarer than smaller species
- Flight looks a bit slow
Dinosaur Planet features Quetzalcoatlus that are just long necked Pteranodon that nest inland for no good reason.
They also got the quadrupedal launch and pycnofibres right, so there's a plus.
Poor Quetzalcoatlus can never catch a break. Even the '11 documentary movie, March of the Dinosaurs managed to badly screw up its anatomy. Besides the usual scales, it was depicted as a biped, and actually lacked its three small wing fingers. On top of that, the narrator claimed it was a scavenger, which is a notion which should have long been forgotten by docu-makers. note Notice above where it says its neck isn't flexible? Like a vulture, it'd need a flexible neck to dig into the carcass and root out bits of flesh, and it doesn't have one.
Dinosaur Revolution is a precious aversion of this when it comes to its pterodactyloids; both the Anhanguera and the generic azhdarchids are possibly the most accurate pterosaurs in fictionland after the Pteranodon/Geostenbergia in Disney's Dinosaur (see below); unfortunately, its Rhamphorhynchus is still an ugly abomination barely resembling the real animal.
The third episode had another sequence that briefly showed azhdarchids scavenging. Again, the notion that azdarchids were specialized scavengers is not likely true, but it's more likely that they were engaging in opportunistic carrion feeding, like some storks do today.
Planet Dinosaur features Hatzegopteryx, chaoyangopterids and more unidentified pterosaurs. Behaviour wise, they are pretty accurate (Hatzegopteryx being depicted as a terrestrial predator for example), despite both azhdarchoids being shown scavenging. There are also a few small anatomical errors, such as pointy wings.
Justified with Adam Squall/Terrordactyl, the protagonist in Rise of the Galeforces. His pterosaur form is based on a Pteranodon with a misshapen, toothy beak, a Cartoony Taillooking rather like a dragon's, prehensile feet, and bat-like wings; this is handwaved by the fact that the local genetics companies meddled with his DNA, as with the Jurassic Park examples below which also appear in several chapters. Thankfully, he has ptero-fuzz, walks on all fours, has wing membranes supported by only one finger, and even uses the quadrupedal launch. Notably, he dislikes being called a dinosaur, but he's cool with being called a pterodactyl, probably because he believes it refers to the subfamily rather than the specific genus.
The Ornithocheirus that show up in later chapters behave a lot like the Cearadactylus in the first Jurassic Park novel, being unusually aggressive and strong. At least they pick things up with their beaks instead of their feet like the Pteranodons do.
Matt Frank's Godzilla Neo Universe gives us a more realistic take on Rodan (see the Film folder below). He still has leathery wings and bird-like feet, but at least he's toothless and (again) has wings supported by the one finger.
The Jurassic Park sequels famously depict Pteranodon longiceps as the token non-dinosaur prehistoric thing; of the two varieties, none is accurate. The first, which appears in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, is exactly like the Pteranodon of the seventies; leathery winged, bird necked, naked, can perch on trees. The second in Jurassic Park III looks slightly more like a real pterosaur, but it is again naked, its wings also seem leathery, and it has freaking teeth ("Pteranodon" meanstoothless wing) and again grasping feet. Possibly justified as they could be mutants, like other cloned prehistoric reptiles in the movies.
The YA novelization of Jurassic Park III actually does state that the Pteranodons were genetically altered to be bigger/more impressive and are not the genuine prehistoric animal.
This is played straight, to various degrees, in the spinoff video-games too. In episode 2 of Telltale's Jurassic Park The Game, a Pteranodon attacks a rescue helicopter for no apparent reason.
It just unintentionally bumped the chopper while chasing that flock of birds. But that in itself is another mistake: Pteranodons were fish-eaters, and probably wouldn't be too interested in birds. Azhdarchids, on the other hand, may have hunted terrestrial prey, but mostly ground-dwelling animals like small reptiles, mammals, and maybe dinosaur hatchlings.
Then again, it has been said in the canon a million times that the many animals that appeared in the Jurassic Park films are just man-made abominations that barely resemble their Real Life counterparts.
The third Ice Age movie has the stereotypical cartoony pterodactyls; about the only thing remotely accurate was that the animal's wing was somewhat rounded in shape, instead of the pointy wings seen in other mediocre depictions (flight would be impossible if the wings were that pointy in Real Life). Also, they were quadrupedal on the ground, but they use the bipedal launch.
Disney's Dinosaur features perhaps a rare aversion; here, a very anatomically accurate Pteranodon sternbergi (or Geosternbergia) carries Aladar's egg in the beginning.
A New Zealand version of Journey to the Center of the Earth has pterodactyls that represent everything that is wrong with cultural perception of pterosaurs. Then again, the movie is really just horrible.
The giant pterosaur Rodan is a mutated Pteranodon (Its Japanese name "Radon", is a play on the name "Pte-RA-no-DON") that is scaly, walks on its hind legs, has teeth, and can grab things with its talons. Considering Rodan is supposed to be a fictional movie monster and not a realistic portrayal of a Pterosaur, this is intentional. He is, after all, played by a man in a suit, and his next appearance has him hanging out with Godzilla.
The Rite of Spring segmant of Fantasia showed what for the time and even by today's standards are pretty accurate Pteranodons that were shown as quadrupeds, eating fish and squid and picking them up with their mouths. On the flip side however, they are still extremely skinny and according to recent studies, they vaulted off the ground and did not roost on cliffs like gulls.
West of Eden features scaly, cold blooded pterosaurs that can't even take off from the ground. It completely illustrates what this trope is about, as it was written in the '80s and features things that would make even the paleontologists of the '70s cry.
Dinoverse has Janine Farehouse Body Swap into a Quetzalcoatlus. A bipedal one with a short neck and no crest, who lives off fish and is inexplicably able to hang upside down on a cliff face. She also has surprising dexterity, but then again so do the kids who became a tyrannosaur and a Leptoceratops, respectively.
Dinotopia's Skybax, which are essentially an undiscovered species of Quetzalcoatlus ridden by this canon's equivalent to Dragon Riders, are about as accurate as most of the other prehistoric creatures. Granted, they don't have fur and their necks are quite flexible, but once again, Science Marches On.
Primeval's Pteranodon is fairly standard — nothing especially wrong with it, but not exactly a transcendent portrayal — but the Anurognathus in the same episode are bipedal scrawny things with the Piranha Problem. Both lack pycnofibres.
Its spinoff, New World, features a pteranodon that's anatomically accurate (even with a straggly covering of pycnofibres), but bigger and meaner.
The Torchwood pterodactyls look like a slightly less mediocre version of Jurassic Park III's second pterosaur variety. By "less mediocre", its just because it lacks teeth. Sans the appearance, Myfanwy also seems to be a super predator when even its anatomy dictates that injuring partially-converted Cybermen and Apatosaurus-aliens would be a fairly hard task.
The rhamphorynchid antagonists in episode 3 of Terra Nova. To be exact, they lack pycnofibres and also have the Piranha Problem.
The Doctor Who episode "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" features abnormally aggressive Pteranodons (called "Pterodactyls" by The Doctor) attacking The Doctor, Rory, and Brian (Rory's dad) in one scene. Granted, the Pterosaurs don't try to grab anyone with their feet, but that still doesn't excuse the writers for having them try to stab the heroes with their beaks. Pteranodon ate fish, it would have no reason to attack people. Oh, and they don't hunt in packs either.
The often overlooked (or purposely ignored?) U.K.R.D. released a number of dinosaur toys in the beginning of the nineties, among them a Pteranodon with an "interesting" approach. While its torso was correctly covered in "hair", it had the stubby legs of a goat, a tiny head and short beak/crest, and bat wings covered in thick scales.
Chinasaurs. The term refers to toys that don't give any indication as to which manufacturer made them, only have the word CHINA stamped onto their underside. Though dinosaurs are more common, a couple of these secretive Chinese companies released a number of pterosaur toys as well, among them a sculpt that can only be described as the following: the figure looks like an Archaeopteryx (which wasn't a pterosaur, but a bird-like dinosaur) from above, save for its head, with a nicely sculpted plumage. Though the undersides of its wings are flat and bare, and its head resembles that of a heron, with a Pteranodon-like crest extending from its back.
There have been a few pterosaur-based Transformers toys throughout the years, some less stellar than others. The original Dinobot Swoop was a boxy-looking metal Pteranodon that rested on its hind legs. Can be forgiven, as he was never meant to represent a realistic animal. The standard Pteranodon mold from Beast Wars, however, was, and fared badly — huge crocodilian scales, a bird-like stance, prominent teeth. Skysaur, the Japanese-exclusive Quetzalcoatlus was similar, although he even had a bird-like beak and an incredibly short neck to boot. The Mini-Con Pteranodon mold and Transformers Animated's Swoop-redesign were also old-school, biped pterosaurs, though like the original Swoop, they too were meant to be more mechanical-looking, so there is some leeway.
The Dino Riders toy line had for the good guys Quetzalcoatlus, Pterodactylus, and several small Rhamphorhynchus which came with the Brontosaurus set. The villains had Pteranodon, and as late addition also a Quetzalcoatlus. A leopard-patterned one.
The Cuddlekins toy line (a line of plush toys by Wild Republic) includes a fairly accurate Pteranodon plush. It's got a furry body, no teeth, non-grasping feet, and its wings are supported by a single finger rather than being bat-like. Granted, it does have its share of flaws, but it's pretty impressive in its accuracy nonetheless.
The Jurassic Park toyline has had pterosaurs (mostly Pteranodons, but there's a Quetzalcoatlus and a Tapejara as well) since before they appeared in the movies. They have their wings correctly supported by a single finger, but all have grasping feet and their wings are connected to the hips instead of legs, and in some toys not connected to the body at all (though this is most likely for the sake of articulation). At least all Pteranodon toys, even the ones based on Jurassic Park III, are properly toothless.
Terry in Banjo-Tooie definitely has teeth, and no end of mucus. For a male, he's awfully possessive about his eggs.
A baddie encountered in that same world is the Soarasaurus. It resembles a cartoony green pteranodon.
In Dungeon Siege II, there is a type of enemy called the Terrak, which (except for the small tail) looks very much like Pteranodon. What makes the paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts cry is the violation of the Rule of Cool that comes with these animals, which can be summed up in this question: "If they have wings, why are they always walking?"
The first Ecco The Dolphin game features a helpful Pteranodon in the Prehistoria levels who was essentially copy/pasted from an old artist's rendering of the species. He somehow manages to carry a bull bottlenose dolphin with no grasping hind feet.
Aerodactyl, the Fossil Pokémon, plays this trope as straight as can be. This is justified, however, in that it isn't meant to represent any known species to begin with, and also because it takes elements from the two-legged, two-winged wyvern (which may explain why the Dragon-type specialist Lance has one on his team).
The Pteranodons from Primal Carnage follow the Jurassic Park recipe as per usual, though in this case it's outright stated that all of the dniosaurs were genetically altered. Earlier designs in particular had misshapen wings and disproportionately small, short heads, though later models remedied these flaws and kept the animals toothless. Commendably, they are one of the few examples that use the quadrupedal launchas real pterosaurs probably did.
The first Silent Hill featured two monster, the Air Screamer and the Night Flutter. Those creatures were based on illustrations from one of Alexa's favourite book, The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This being Silent Hill, the flying horrors haven been twisted by the town, with the Air Screamer resembling a hideously emaciated pterodactyl/bat hybrid and the Night Flutter possessing a human-like body and a wriggling mass of worms for a head.
Pteranodons are enemies in the Amazon level in Strider, and they look sort of allright outside of their leathery ponty wings. The fact they exist in the year 2048 is justified as they (like all other dinosaurs in the stage) were bio-engineered by the Big Bad as one of his experiments.
Pi'illodactyls in Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. Still, you could at least argue they're a fictional species from a fantasy world.
Good luck finding a cartoon whose pterosaurs aren't seventies-style Pteranodons with long tails. The Flintstones is the primary example of the typical western pterosaur.
Petrie in The Land Before Time looks like a seventies Pteranodon, but at least the animators tried to lessen the blow by giving him subtle influence from theories that were new back then and eventually turned out true, like making him walk on all fours most of the time and not mentioning his diet. The sequels, however, threw these hints to the garbage can and made all pterosaurs vulture expies that eat leaves.
The Secret Saturdays averts this slightly with Zon. For one side, she has fur and wings somewhat shaped like a real pterosaur's and she walks on all fours. On the other hand, the wing structure itself is wrong, she is cold-blooded, she can stand on two legs for quite some time and that is how she takes off. It is possible that the anatomical mistakes are just to make her appropriately "cartoony" for the show, as the authors do seem to actually do research.
Terrorsaur's alt-mode in Beast Wars is a hairless Pteranodon with a beak full of teeth, and a scaly skin. He moved on the ground by hopping on his tiny back legs. A funny sight, actually.
Dinosaur Train has traditional cartoony Pteranodon as among the main cast, being scaly, cold-blooded, green, bipedal creatures with bat wings. Thankfully, at least the pterosaurs have wings that were supported by one finger, can fly actively and efficiently, and are acknowledged as not being dinosaurs, the Pteranodons do not have teeth, and several dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex and the Troodon are equally more cartoony than realistic.
Terrible Dactyl from Dinosaucers was said to be a Pteranodon, but his actual design was mostly Rhamphorhyncus.
One episode of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius had a scaly Pteranodon that was able carry Sheen to its nest using it's feet. At least it didn't have teeth or a long tail...
Im A Dinosaur has a feathered Sordes and a Pteranodon that lives inland. Both perch in trees, are bipedal & and have three fingers (including the wing finger).
Bullzeye from Extreme Dinosaurs is a toothed Pteranodon with bat-wings, and he gains an additional set of arms upon mutation. As a result, he was mistaken for a dragon in one episode.
Dactar from the Rugrats special "Runaway Reptar" is this by virtue of being a Rodan Expy. Ironically, he looks more like an actual Pteranodon than Rodan himself did (aside from the teeth and long tail).
The "pterodactyl" from the Gravity Falls episode "The Land Before Swine", which looks like an unholy mixture of all stereotypes, down to the scaly skin, being called a "dinosaur", having eagle-like hindlimbs and a bird neck, leathery wings, having a Pteranodon crest alongside rather mismatched teeth, making chicken-like nests and having zero body fat. Strangely enough, though, it walks quadrupedally, like a real pterosaur.
Jet from Kung Fu Dino Posse has the same problem as Bullzeye: he has bat-wings and an additional set of arms. He also has a long tail, although it at least lacks the diamond-shaped tip.