Pterosaur dietary hypotheses: a review of ideas and approaches

Jordan Bestwick*, David M. Unwin, Richard J. Butler, Donald M. Henderson, Mark A. Purnell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)
390 Downloads (Pure)


Pterosaurs are an extinct group of Mesozoic flying reptiles, whose fossil record extends from approximately 210 to 66 million years ago. They were integral components of continental and marginal marine ecosystems, yet their diets remain poorly constrained. Numerous dietary hypotheses have been proposed for different pterosaur groups, including insectivory, piscivory, carnivory, durophagy, herbivory/frugivory, filter-feeding and generalism. These hypotheses, and subsequent interpretations of pterosaur diet, are supported by qualitative (content fossils, associations, ichnology, comparative anatomy) and/or quantitative (functional morphology, stable isotope analysis) evidence. Pterosaur dietary interpretations are scattered throughout the literature with little attention paid to the supporting evidence. Reaching a robustly supported consensus on pterosaur diets is important for understanding their dietary evolution, and their roles in Mesozoic ecosystems. A comprehensive examination of the pterosaur literature identified 314 dietary interpretations (dietary statement plus supporting evidence) from 126 published studies. Multiple alternative diets have been hypothesised for most principal taxonomic pterosaur groups. Some groups exhibit a high degree of consensus, supported by multiple lines of evidence, while others exhibit less consensus. Qualitative evidence supports 87.3% of dietary interpretations, with comparative anatomy most common (62.1% of total). More speciose groups of pterosaur tend to have a greater range of hypothesised diets. Consideration of dietary interpretations within alternative phylogenetic contexts reveals high levels of consensus between equivalent monofenestratan groups, and lower levels of consensus between equivalent non-monofenestratan groups. Evaluating the possible non-biological controls on apparent patterns of dietary diversity reveals that numbers of dietary interpretations through time exhibit no correlation with patterns of publication (number of peer-reviewed publications through time). 73.8% of dietary interpretations were published in the 21st century. Overall, consensus interpretations of pterosaur diets are better accounted for by non-biological signals, such as the impact of the respective quality of the fossil record of different pterosaur groups on research levels. That many interpretations are based on qualitative, often untestable lines of evidence adds significant noise to the data. More experiment-led pterosaur dietary research, with greater consideration of pterosaurs as organisms with independent evolutionary histories, will lead to more robust conclusions drawn from repeatable results. This will allow greater understanding of pterosaur dietary diversity, disparity and evolution and facilitate reconstructions of Mesozoic ecosystems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2021-2048
Number of pages28
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number4
Early online date7 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
All authors contributed to the conception of the study and analytical design. J.B. and D.M.U. collected the data. J.B. analysed the data. J.B. wrote the manuscript with contributions from all authors. Thanks to Romain Amiot, Mark Witton and Li-Da Xing for permissions for Figs and, respectively. Thanks to Mark Witton for access to useful papers and discussions on pterosaur diets. Thanks to The Pterosaur Database, and Polyglot Palaeontologist ( for access to useful papers. We thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. J.B. is funded by a NERC studentship awarded through the Central England NERC Training Alliance (CENTA; grant reference NE/L002493/1) and by the University of Leicester.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Authors. Biological Reviews published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Cambridge Philosophical Society.


  • comparative anatomy
  • consensus
  • diet
  • ecosystem
  • evidence
  • interpretations
  • pterosaur
  • qualitative
  • quantitative

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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