Pteranodon - Discovery and History

Discovery and History

Pteranodon was the first pterosaur found outside of Europe. Its fossils first were found by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1870, in the Late Cretaceous Smoky Hill Chalk deposits of western Kansas. These chalk beds were deposited at the bottom of what was once the Western Interior Seaway, a large shallow sea over what now is the midsection of the North American continent. These first specimens, YPM 1160 and YPM 1161, consisted of partial wing bones, as well as a tooth from the prehistoric fish Xiphactinus, which Marsh mistakenly believed to belong to this new pterosaur (all known pterosaurs up to that point had teeth). In 1871, Marsh named the find Pterodactlyus Oweni, assigning it to the well-known (but much smaller) European genus Pterodactylus. Marsh also collected more wing bones of the large pterosaur in 1871. Realizing that the name Pterodactylus oweni already had been used in 1864 for a specimen of the European Pterodactylus, Marsh re-named his North American pterosaur Pterodactylus occidentalis, meaning "Western wing finger," in his 1872 description of the new specimen. He also named two additional species, based on size differences: Pterodactylus ingens (the largest specimen so far), and Pterodactlyus velox (the smallest).

Meanwhile, Marsh's rival Edward Drinker Cope also had unearthed several specimens of the large North American pterosaur. Based on these specimens, Cope named two new species, Ornithochirus umbrosus and Ornithochirus harpyia, in an attempt to assign them to the large European genus Ornithocheirus. As he misspelled the name (forgetting the 'e'), however, he accidentally created an entirely new genus. Cope's paper naming his ''Ornithochirus species was published in 1872, just five days after Marsh's paper. This resulted in a dispute, fought in the published literature, over whose names had priority in what obviously were the same species. Cope conceded in 1875 that Marsh's names did have priority over his, but maintained that Pterodactylus umbrosus was a distinct species (but not genus) from any that Marsh had named previously. Re-evaluation by later scientists has supported Marsh's case, and found that Cope's assertion that P. umbrosus was a larger, distinct species were incorrect.

While the first Pteranodon wing bones were collected by Marsh and Cope in the early 1870s, the first Pteranodon skull was found on May 2, 1876, along the Smoky Hill River in Wallace County (now Logan County), Kansas, USA, by Samuel Wendell Williston, a fossil collector working for Marsh. A second, smaller skull soon was discovered as well. These skulls showed that the North American pterosaurs were different from any European species, in that they lacked teeth. Marsh recognized that this major difference, describing the specimens as "distinguished from all previously known genera of the order Pterosauria by the entire absence of teeth." Marsh recognized that this characteristic warranted a new genus, and he coined the name Pteranodon ("wing without tooth") in 1876. Marsh also reclassified all the previously named North American species from Pterodactylus to Pteranodon, with the larger skull, YPM 1117, referred to the new species Pteranodon longiceps. He also named an additional species, Pteranodon gracilis, based on a wing bone that he mistook for a pelvic bone. He soon realized his mistake, and re-classified that specimen into a separate genus, which he named Nyctosaurus.

Some of the most influential studies of Pteranodon during the 20th Century were published by George Francis Eaton, who conducted thorough re-analysis of the known specimens and published some of the first good photographs and illustrations of the best specimens. During the early 1990s, S. Christopher Bennett also published several major papers reviewing the anatomy, taxonomy and life history of Pteranodon.

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