May 19, 2022


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What Did Pterosaurs Eat? Look Very Closely at Their Teeth

They began with fossil teeth from 17 different pterosaur species—more specifically, the front teeth the animals used to grasp their prey. Like modern reptiles, pterosaurs snagged their prey and swallowed it whole. So those front teeth would develop a unique microwear pattern depending on whether a particular species was after, say, fish or crabs. Even though their teeth would fall out periodically and be replaced with new ones, the chompers lasted long enough to accumulate microwear.

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Illustration: Jordan Bestwick/Nature Communications

If you take a look above, you can see six of these images, each corresponding to an area a tenth of a millimeter square. At top are three extant species: the gharial, which eats fish; the American crocodile, which eats harder invertebrates like snails and crustaceans; and Grey’s monitor lizard, which is an omnivore. At bottom are three pterosaur species.

Based on the characteristic wear patterns, the researchers reckon that Istiodactylus was a meat eater. Coloborhynchus probably took a broader range of prey, maybe both fish and softer invertebrates. And Austriadactylus, which paleobiologists have speculated might have fed on fish or meat, now appears to have been a consumer of invertebrates—critters without backbones. “So this one might have been feeding on crunchy insects and such,” says Bestwick. “This can really help us understand what these animals were doing in ancient food webs.”

By comparing the microwear on pterosaur teeth to that of extant species, the researchers could build a clearer picture of what the ancient fliers were eating, but they can’t yet say how different kinds of prey created different microwear patterns on the teeth. “The mechanistic process of how a tooth interacts with food and causes chipping and scratching and indentation is not quite yet fully understood,” says Bestwick, “especially in reptiles, because these animals don’t chew their food. But we can make sort of logical leaps of faith based on how we know that reptiles eat.”

Why go through all the trouble of microwear analysis? Because teeth can lie. Imagine I handed you a panda skull and a polar bear skull and had you examine the shapes of their heads and teeth. They’ll look quite similar, even though a polar bear eats seals almost exclusively, and a panda specializes in bamboo. “You’d assume that these animals were eating the same things,” says Bestwick. “These types of comparisons aren’t always the best. And so you need kind of a more quantitative experimental way of looking at diet.”

Also, like modern alligators, some pterosaur species may have fed on a variety of foods. “An adult alligator can break open turtle shells, it can crush bones, and it can also eat very soft things like fish,” says Daemen College vertebrate anatomist Domenic D’Amore, who wasn’t involved in this work. “So not only do teeth not indicate necessarily the type of food they eat, they also don’t indicate the breadth of food that an organism eats.”

Microwear analysis allowed Bestwick and his colleagues to even peer into the mysterious upbringings of individual pterosaurs. A tricky bit about pterosaur paleobiology is that it’s hard to tell if the animals cared for their young (like birds do) or let them fend for themselves (like reptiles tend to do). Luckily, these researchers had teeth from Rhamphorhynchus specimens of various ages. The teeth of babies indicated they fed more on invertebrates, like insects, while the adults ate fish. “If Rhamphorhynchus was looking after its young, we therefore would have expected microwear to have been the same regardless of age,” says Bestwick, because mom and dad would have been bringing home fish for the kids to eat. “So this tells us maybe pterosaurs had lifestyles more similar to reptiles than birds.”