Pterosaurs: dragons of the air
What colour were pterosaurs?
The Jurassic Pterorhynchus from China has a head crest with a striking pattern of dark and light stripes, but we do not know what colour the stripes were. But this specimen at least tells us that pterosaurs may well have been strikingly coloured and patterned.
Coloured head crests
Palaeoartist Luis Rey examined the possibility that pterosaur head crests, thought to be for sexual attraction and species recognition, were strikingly patterned and brightly coloured.
Picture used with kind permission of Luis Rey.
Skin, scale and fur colour
Pterosaurs were reptiles and, like modern reptiles, had scales. However, these did not cover all of the body and neck, which was instead covered with a type of fur. Scales appear to have been restricted to the feet and perhaps the legs. Fur and scales can be pigmented, and it is not unreasonable to assume that pterosaurs would also have exhibited a range of colours and patterns used for camouflage, warning and identification.
The colour schemes used by palaeoartists are usually based on modern animals, with birds and bats an obvious choice as pterosaur analogues. However, even when birds have similar ecologies, the range of colours and patterns found can be highly variable (check out the range of colour schemes in parrots). If we follow the evidence suggesting that Quetzalcoatlus was a largely ground-dwelling predator of small vertebrates, storks and ground hornbills would be analogues – the former is mostly white, while the latter black. This makes choosing colours for pterosaurs an impossible task. The colour schemes employed here are therefore not an educated guess, they are simply to make the display look realistic. However, the Northern Ground Hornbill has some blue pigmentation, and we have incorporated this into Quetzalcoatlus.
Pterosaurs had large eyes supported by a ring of bony plates. They also, like birds, had expanded optic lobes of the brain, indicating good visual perception. It is assumed that pterosaurs were daytime flyers, but there is no reason why some forms could not have been nocturnal. Presently, there is no evidence for the colour of the eyes or the shape of the pupil, and so for the models preserved here we have selected colours found in birds.
These eyeballs were made by Bob Loveridge using clear glass globes sold as ornamentals ends for curtain rails. He painted them using acrylics and filled them with resin to provide extra strength.
Photo courtesy of Derek Weights.