National Geographic : 2005 Aug
Fish-Eating Flyer SHAOPTERUS GRACILIS T In death a pterosaur rests with a wing bone in its mouth (below), perhaps from the natural collapse of the wing, perhaps, as some sci entists speculate, from a struggle before volcanic gases snuffed out its life.The pointed rostrum, or beak, and the sharp and slender front teeth suggest that it preyed on fish. Long before birds and bats took wing, the skies were ruled by ptero saurs, reptiles that were Earth's first flying vertebrates.They arose 230 million years ago during the latter part ofthe Triassic period and thrived for 165 million years until going extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period. The wingspan of Hoopterus gracilis was nearly four and a half feet, easily exceeding the ten-inch span of Pterodactylus elegons, per haps the smallest pterosaur, but falling far short of Quetzolcootlus northropi, whose wings stretched at least 36 feet tip to tip.The pterosaurs' light, hollow bones aided takeoff. But their fragility also made fossilization difficult-best achievable in the soft ooze of the seafloor or lake beds like those at Liaoning.The discovery of H. gracilis and other pterosaurs at Liaoning, some preserved with body cover ings of fuzz, extends the known range of pterosaurs. %- *A.