Jurassic diet: why our knowledge of what ancient pterosaurs ate might be wrong

Posted by ap507 at Jun 07, 2018 10:30 AM |
Research reveals knowledge of prehistoric diets is often based on outdated ideas and could be inaccurate
Jurassic diet: why our knowledge of what ancient pterosaurs ate might be wrong

Restoration of the giant azhdarchid pterosaur Hatzegopteryx catching an unsuspecting dinosaur for supper. Credit: Mark P. Witton/CC BY 4.0.

Whenever we think about extinct animals we often imagine them eating their favourite meals, whether it be plants, other animals or a combination of both.

But are our ideas about extinct diets grounded within scientific reasoning, or are they actually little more than conjecture and speculation?

New research, published in Biological Reviews and led by a team of palaeobiologists from our School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, has revealed that the diets of pterosaurs are largely based on ideas that have been uncritically accepted for decades, or even centuries - and may often be wrong.

The study shows that one group of extinct animals where our dietary knowledge is lacking are the pterosaurs - extinct flying reptiles who lived in the Mesozoic Period 215–66 million years ago. 

The research involved a comprehensive analysis of the scientific literature, summarising over 300 statements from 126 studies about the diets of pterosaurs, and the types of evidence used to support ideas of what they ate.

The research shows the vast majority of ideas about pterosaur diet are based on inferences drawn from modern organisms and/or the environments in which pterosaur fossils are preserved. These are not always reliable.

PhD student Jordan Bestwick, lead author of the study, said: “Working out the diets of extinct animals is vitally important for understanding how they fitted within their respective ecosystems, which can tell us about how present ecosystems function and may change in the future.

“Being able to robustly test ideas is a key attribute of the scientific process, and helps us fully understand what we can know about the lifestyles of extinct animals, and what we can never know.”

This research was covered by national media outlets including the Guardian.

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