As long as humans have been able to scribble writings onto tablets made of either stone, paper, or silicone screens, they’ve passed down the same age-old question from generation to generation: “Would pteranodons prey upon and actually eat people if we co-existed?”
The inquiry rose to further relevance following the release of Jurassic World in 2015, in which there is a gruesome scene of a woman being picked up by pterosaurs and tossed around like a rag doll as the beasts fight over her like pigeons fighting over bread crumbs. Even within the context of the film it’s a bit strange.
Although the pteranodons are clearly large animals in the movie, they’re still not big enough to successfully swallow a grown human whole. Of course, they were kept in captivity in the film, so maybe they were just in a frenzy after escaping from their cages. Or maybe they were merely curious. But under normal circumstances, would an actual pteranodon behave this way in a real life encounter with people?
The short answer is “probably not”. While pterosaurs are generally not considered to be direct ancestors of birds, they are still closely related and are believed to have had many of the same habits of modern birds such as pelicans and gannets.
Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing discovered the remains of a pterosaur called Ikrandraco that they believe sported a pouch under its chin, much like pelicans today. Paleontologists around the world have even found the fossilized remains of fish within the stomachs of pteranodon bones, indicating a similar diet to some modern-day birds.
The common belief among the scientific community is that many animals within the pterosaur family lived near bodies of water and scooped up fish with their long beaks – in most cases probably swallowing them whole; especially in the case of pteranodons specifically as the vast majority of their fossils are completely toothless.
That’s not to say humans would be completely safe from pteranodons. Male pteranodons were particularly large animals – with giant wingspans that could reach up to 18 feet (nearly 6 meters) across. And if you’ve ever crossed paths with an angry pelican, or worse yet an angry goose, you know just how aggressive bird-like creatures can be.
However, we have to keep things in perspective. If pteranodon behavior was as consistent with pelicans as their diets likely were, they would probably only attack humans in very rare circumstances – likely in misunderstandings, fighting over fish, or self-defense.
To be fair to Jurassic World, the film’s depiction of the pteranodons diving in the water to scoop up prey is probably pretty accurate. However, the film is totally going out on a limb in its portrayal of the pteranodons actually picking people up and dropping them from lofty heights. While that behavior is more in line with hawks and crows, there’s no evidence of pteranodons ever exhibiting this behavior. We can’t rule it out though, as that would be a difficult scene to confirm through fossil records – we’d have to actually observe live pteranodons in their natural habitat to confirm it.
Still, if humans had to fear any member of the pterosaur family, the quetzalcoatlus would be the top contender. There’s a reason the quetzalcoatlus was named after a literal Aztec serpent god. The quetzalcoatlus was a veritable giant. Standing at full height, it would be even taller than the mighty Tyrannosaurs Rex.
Quetzalcoatlus fossils indicate some of them had wingspans as wide as 52 feet (15.9 meters). Unlike pteranodons, a quetzalcoatlus would certainly be large enough to eat a human if it was so inclined. And be so inclined it very will could be. Quetzalcoatlus are believed to have eaten more than just fish. Their anatomy has led researchers to believe that, despite being winged creatures, quetzalcoatlus were accustomed to a terrestrial lifestyle and frequently hunted dinosaurs on the ground. They would very likely have few qualms about scooping up all but the largest unsuspecting humans and devouring them if given the chance.
So, the good news is you can stop having nightmares about bloodthirsty pteranodons. The bad news is, now you have to wrestle with the thought of a bloodthirsty quetzalcoatlus knocking down your doors for a late-night snack. Sweet dreams.