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"If dinosaurs are badly portrayed in movies, then pterosaurs have an even worse time!"

In prehistory, Everything's Better with Dinosaurs.

While it is true that our knowledge of prehistoric fauna is steadily improving, the depictions in popular media do not seem to be as up to date with modern science. While dinosaurs are increasingly averting the Science Marches On trope, however, the same cannot be said for the other dominant organisms during their 200-million-year reign. As a case in point, look no further than their closest relatives, the pterosaurs - the first vertebrates [1] to fly.

Of course, nothing adds to a prehistoric atmosphere like tossing in some of these "flying reptiles." However, it's a good idea to take most depictions of pterosaurs with a grain of salt. Most media will ratchet them up to being eagles or bats on crack, snatching prey (like tasty humans) for feeding and being far more agile than they were in real life. Keep in mind that as in the case of most other prehistoric animals, Rule of Cool very much applies here.

If you see a pterosaur represented in any piece of fiction, the odds are good that it will have at least one of the common stereotypical (and inaccurate) traits listed at this website and this website. The contents of these lists are summarized in the folder below.

This is a subtrope of Somewhere a Paleontologist Is Crying. See Somewhere an Ornithologist Is Crying for the avian version and Somewhere a Herpetologist Is Crying. See also Giant Flyer, All Flyers Are Birds, and Dinosaurs Are Dragons (because pop culture pterodactyls are often surprisingly similar to wyverns).



List of Common Inaccuracies in Media

  • Confusing the names "pterosaur" and "pterodactyl" as if they were synonyms. "Pterosaur" is used for the total group of the Mesozoic flying "reptiles"[2]. "Pterodactyl" is either a name for a subgroup of pterosaurs or a genus name for a particular pterosaur, Pterodactylus. To put this into perspective, this would be as bad as calling every primate you met a "gorilla," if referring to the genus name, or "ape," if referring to the subgroup name; while it's acceptable to refer to Hominoidea as apes, it's not acceptable to refer to primates as a whole as apes, since monkeys aren't apes. In a similar manner, pterodactyloids were indeed an advanced group of pterosaurs and the word "pterodactyl" can be used to refer to them, but "pterodactyl" and "pterosaur" do not mean the same thing.
  • Designing the pterosaurs with bat-like wings rather than anatomically correct pterosaur ones. This ranges from having leathery wings made of nothing but skin to having the whole wing membrane being supported by all the fingers. In reality, pterosaur wings were made of tougher, more complicated materials and were supported by one finger. They should also attach at the ankle or at the lower leg, not at the hip, and they should be rounded and smooth, not pointed or angular.
  • Essentially, Pterosaurs Are Dinosaurs. Pterosaurs were closely related to the dinosaurs, being more closely related to each other than to modern crocodiles, but pterosaurs were not dinosaurs themselves.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters. Two pterosaur species will be combined into one hybridised design. This is a particularly good sign that the creators just didn't care, considering how easy it would be to sort out.
  • Bigger Is Better. The pterosaurs on show will be truly gigantic, far larger than the fossil record can justify. There is some Truth in Television for this belief, as creatures like Quetzalcoatlus currently hold the record for the largest wingspans ever known. However, this is at best 12 metres, and is based on scanty evidence. In fiction, beasts with much larger wingspans are exaggerations. This is all the more obvious when the species being shown didn't even approach that size.
  • Toothy Bird trope applied to pterosaurs. Specifically, this is when a pterosaur (like the iconic Pteranodon) is shown having teeth, sometimes a horrifying set of gnashers, instead of a toothless beak (it should be noted at this point that the name "pteranodon" actually means "wings without teeth"). Occasionally this can be reversed when a normally toothy pterosaur (like Rhamphorhynchus) looks like it had a run-in with an angry dentist.
  • Pterosaurs in fiction will grab objects with their feet and hoist them into the air, presumably to be carried away and eaten. Pterosaur feet were designed for quadrupedal walking on the ground, or for climbing vertical objects or branch systems depending on the species [3]. No known pterosaur had prehensile feet with opposable digits, which makes any depiction of pterosaurs picking humans up with their feet inaccurate.
  • Misplaced Wildlife or Anachronism Stew, unless it is crucial to the plot (for instance, a Lost World that contains a Sole Survivor species is discovered and the plot rests on that premise).
  • Small Taxonomy Pools, perhaps because the creators wanted to avoid the Viewers Are Geniuses trope, because they simply hadn't heard of them, or because they just didn't bother to do their homework. Pteranodon is easily the most recognisable of all pterosaurs in popular culture, with Rhamphorhynchus coming a close second. Quetzalcoatlus may get a mention, but the chances of meeting any other pterosaur species in fiction is virtually nil.
  • Missing pycnofibres (fuzz only known on pterosaurs). Pterosaurs are almost always depicted as scaly, despite the growing evidence that most, if not all, of them had pycnofibres.
  • Pterosaurs will have an inexplicable desire to attack or kill humans on sight. This one may be justified if the pterosaur in question is a Papa Wolf or a Mama Bear defending its nest, or has some other biologically plausible behaviour, but usually it's as if the pterosaurs have looked up the Humans Are Bastards page in advance - essentially, Pterosaurs Are Dragons. As noted, however, some of the largest azhdarchids, like the Hatzegopteryx were large enough to have snatched up a human and swallowed it whole if it were hungry and nothing else of the right size was around.[4]
  • Expect any fictional pterosaur that lands on the ground to be hopelessly lost. Real pterosaurs were more than capable of walking on firm ground - not only were some of them were scarily competent at it, but new evidence now suggests that they could even take off from level ground, using their wings to vault themselves into the air rather like vampire bats do today. [5]
  • Portraying pterosaurs as birds or the ancestors of birds- while pterosaurs did fly, the actual ancestors of birds were true dinosaurs-more specifically, the maniraptor dinosaurs. Also, pterosaurs will often be shown to take good care of their eggs in the same way as birds, though more likely they simply laid their eggs and were done with that, like a modern lizard.


Examples of Ptero-Soarer include:


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  • This BC Dairy commercial.


Documentaries

  • Clash of the Dinosaurs has a Quetzalcoatlus that, although featuring some new discoveries about pterosaurs (namely, the catapult way of taking off and the complex nervous system), is also scaly for no good reason, can apparently detect dinosaur urine and other strange fictitious traits that make it look like the pterosaur analogue of a superhero. That's just one of the many problems with this documentary.
    • It also portrays it as a soaring, raptor-like predator. Which is... unlikely, to say the least. Although things are looking much better than they once did for the flight capabilities of large azhdarchid pterosaurs, their anatomy -- particularly of the rather well-preserved Quetzalcoatlus -- is rather incompatible with this method of predation. Instead, it's much more likely they fed like cranes -- landing, then using their long neck to snatch up smaller prey while their long legs grant them a superior elevated position for doing so.
  • Walking with Dinosaurs fell somewhat to Science Marches On about its pterosaurs, but the way how they bend the wings when on the ground is still anatomically impossible. They still didn't give much effort into their Quetzalcoatlus, which was just a recolored and slightly tweaked version of the Ornithocheirus model (short neck, teeth and all). On the other hand, they did show several lesser known species of pterosaurs, like said Ornitocheirus, the small South American species Tapejara, or the early (and cute) Triassic Petenosaurus (found mainly in modern day Italy and other parts of Europe and somewhat better known to paleontology fans).
    • Not to mention that the Ornithocheirus is oversized to be Quetzalcoatlus-sized, and the Pteranodon is placed in Late Cretaceous South America, when it lived in Late Cretaceous North America.
      • They are placed in Late Cretaceous North America in Sea Monsters.
  • Dinosaur Planet features Quetzalcoatlus that are basically just long necked Pteranodon that nest inland for no good reason.
  • When Dinosaurs Roamed America has a Quetzalcoatlus that is clumsy on the ground and has a flexible, bird-like neck, but again Science Marches On.
  • Inverted on Animal Armageddon, where Quetzalcoatlus is among the very few creatures that are not hideous CGI abominations with no connection to reality.
  • The documentary Flying Monsters 3 D by David Attenborough attempted to be an aversion of this trope. Unfortunately, several mistakes made through to the final version. At least the visuals are nice.
  • Poor Quetzalcoatlus can never catch a break. Even the '11 documentary movie, March of the Dinosaurs managed to badly screw up its anatomy. Besides the usual scales, it was depicted as a biped, and actually lacked its three small wing fingers. On top of that, the narrator claimed it was a scavenger, which is a notion which should have long been forgotten by docu-makers. [6]
  • Dinosaur Revolution is a precious aversion of this when it comes to its pterodactyloids; both the Anhanguera and the generic azhdarchids are possibly the most accurate pterosaurs in fictionland after the Pteranodon/Geostenbergia in Disney's Dinosaur (see below); unfortunately, its Rhamphorhynchus is still an ugly abomination barely resembling the real animal. Unfortunately, the azhdarchids are also shown scavenging too.
  • Planet Dinosaur features Hatzegopteryx, chaoyangopterids and more unidentified pterosaurs. Behaviour wise, they are pretty accurate (Hatzegopteryx being depicted as a terrestrial predator for example), despite both azhdarchoids being shown scavenging. There are also a few small anatomical errors, such as pointy wings.

Fan Works


Film

  • The Jurassic Park sequels famously depict Pteranodon longiceps as the token non-dinosaur prehistoric thing; of the two varieties, none is accurate. The first, which appears in The Lost World, is exactly like the Pteranodon of the seventies; leathery winged, bird necked, naked, can perch on trees. The second looks slightly more like a real pterosaur, but it is again naked, its wings also seem leathery, and it has freaking teeth ("Pteranodon" means toothless wing) and again grasping feet. Possibly justified as they could be mutants, like other cloned prehistoric reptiles in the movies.
    • The YA novelization of Jurassic Park III actually does state that the Pteranodons were genetically altered to be bigger/more impressive and are not the genuine prehistoric animal.
    • Not to mention that they have bird-like nests in III. Pterosaurs do not raise their young in that way!
    • This is played straight, to various degrees, in the spinoff video-games too. In episode 2 of the Telltale JP game, a Pteranodon attacks a rescue helicopter for no apparent reason.
  • The movie Pterodactyl. Imagine if the second variety of JP Pteranodons took steroids and decided to go bipedal. Granted, this is a movie that has one slice a man in half with its wing.
  • This trope technically first appeared in early movies like King Kong, back when not much was known about prehistoric animals in general. At least, unlike below, the wings are those of a pterosaur...
  • Many a Harryhausen Movie with stop-motion dinosaurs pulls this off (specific examples include One Million Years BC and The Valley of Gwangi). Word of God states the major inaccuracy, giving the animal bat wings, was because they didn't found out a decent wing support that was modeled like the real animal's wing.
  • The third Ice Age movie has the stereotypical cartoony pterodactyls; about the only thing remotely accurate was that the animal's wing was somewhat rounded in shape, instead of the pointy wings seen in other mediocre depictions (flight would be impossible if the wings were that pointy in Real Life).
  • Disney's Dinosaur features perhaps the only true aversion; here, a very anatomically accurate Pteranodon steinbergi (or Geosternbergia) carries Aladar's egg in the beginning.
  • A New Zealand version of Journey to The Centre of The Earth has pterodactyls that basically represent everything that is wrong with cultural perception of pterosaurs. Then again, the movie is really just horrible.
  • The giant pterosaur Rodan is a mutated Pteranodon (Its Japanese name "Radon", is a play on the name "Pte-RA-no-DON") that is scaly, walks on its hind legs, has teeth, and can grab things with its talons. Of course, considering Rodan is supposed to be a fictional movie monster and not a realistic portrayal of a Pterosaur, this is intentional.
  • The Rite of Spring segmant of Fantasia for some reason actually showed Pteranodon hanging upside-down like bats.
  • Elsa from We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story is a Pterodactyl with a long tail who hates being called a bat.
    • And, well, she has a monstruously inaccurate wing structure. She really DOES look more like bat.


Literature

  • West of Eden features scaly, cold blooded pterosaurs that can't even take off the ground. It completely illustrates what this trope is about, as it was written in the 80's and features things that would make even the paleontologists of the 70's cry.
  • Dinoverse has Janine Farehouse Body Swap into a Quetzalcoatlus. A bipedal one with a short neck and no crest, who lives off fish and is inexplicably able to hang upside down on a cliff face. She also has surprising dexterity, but then again so do the kids who became a tyrannosaur and a Leptoceratops, respectively.
  • Dinotopia's Skybax, which are essentially an undiscovered species of Quetzalcoatlus ridden by this canon's equivalent to Dragon Riders, are about as accurate as most of the other prehistoric creatures. Granted, they don't have fur and their necks are quite flexible, but once again, Science Marches On.


Live Action

  • Primeval's Pteranodon is somewhat decent, but the Anurognathus in the same episode look more like what would happen if you mixed a bat, a penguin and a gator than the real things. Worse, it gives them the Piranha Problem.
  • The Torchwood pterodactyls look like a slightly less mediocre version of Jurassic Park's second pterosaur variety. By "less mediocre", its just because it lacks teeth. Sans the appearance, Myfanwy also seems to be a super predator when even its anatomy dictates that injuring partially-converted Cybermen and Apatosaurus-aliens would be a fairly hard task.
  • The rhamphorynchid antagonists in episode 3 of Terra Nova. To be exact, they are bipedal, lack pycnofibres and also have the Piranha Problem.


Tabletop Games


Toys

  • The often overlooked (or purposely ignored?) U.K.R.D. released a number of dinosaur toys in the beginning of the nineties, among them a Pteranodon with an "interesting" approach. While its torso was correctly covered in "hair", it had the stubby legs of a goat, a tiny head and short beak/crest, and batwings covered in thick scales.
  • Chinasaurs. The term refers to toys that don't give any indication as to which manufacturer made them, only have the word CHINA stamped onto their underside. Though dinosaurs are more common, a couple of these secretive Chinese companies released a number of pterosaur toys as well, among them a sculpt that can only be described as the following: the figure looks like an Archaeopteryx (which wasn't a pterosaur, but a bird-like dinosaur) from above, save for its head, with a nicely sculpted plumage. Though the undersides of its wings are flat and bare, and its head resembles that of a heron, with a Pteranodon-like crest extending from its back.
  • There have been a few pterosaur-based Transformers toys throughout the years, some less stellar than others. The original Dinobot Swoop was a boxy-looking metal Pteranodon that rested on its hind legs. Can be forgiven, as he was never meant to represent a realistic animal. The standard Pteranodon mold from Beast Wars, however, was, and fared badly -- huge crocodilian scales, a bird-like stance, prominent teeth. Skysaur, the Japanese-exclusive Quetzalcoatlus was similar, although he even had a bird-like beak and an incredibly short neck to boot. The Mini-Con Pteranodon mold and Transformers Animated's Swoop-redesign were also old-school, biped pterosaurs, though like the original Swoop, they too were meant to be more mechanical-looking, so there is some leeway.
  • The Dino Riders toy line had for the good guys Quetzalcoatlus, Pterodactylus, and several small Rhamphorhynchus which came with the Brontosaurus set. The villains had Pteranodon, and as late addition also a Quetzalcoatlus. A leopard-patterned one.
  • The Cuddlekins toy line (a line of plush toys by Wild Republic) includes a fairly accurate Pteranodon plush. It's got a furry body, no teeth, non-grasping feet, and its wings are supported by a single finger rather than being bat-like. Granted, it does have its share of flaws, but it's pretty impressive in its accuracy nonetheless.


Video Games

  • Turok follows the Jurassic Park pterosaur model once more.
  • Terry in Banjo-Tooie definitely has teeth, and no end of mucus. For a male, he's awfully possessive about his eggs.
    • A baddie encountered in that same world is the Soarasaurus. It resembles a cartoony green pteradon.
  • In Dungeon Siege II, there is a type of enemy called the Terrak, which (except for the small tail) looks very much like Pteranodon. What makes the paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts cry is the violation of the Rule of Cool that comes with these animals, which can be summed up in this question: "If they have wings, why are they always walking?"
  • The first Ecco the Dolphin game features a helpful Pteranodon in the Prehistoria levels who was essentially copy/pasted from an old artist's rendering of the species. He somehow manages to carry a bull bottlenose dolphin with no grasping hind feet.
  • Aerodactyl, the Fossil Pokémon, plays this trope as straight as can be. This is justified, however, in that it isn't meant to represent any known species to begin with, and also because it takes elements from the two-legged, two-winged wyvern (which may explain why the Dragon-type specialist Lance has one on his team).
  • The Pteranodons from Primal Carnage follow the Jurassic Park recipe as per usual. Of course, they are a bit... less... mediocre in that they are toothless, like the real thing, but their wings are misshapen and their heads are a bit... small. Commendably, however, they will likely be using a quadrupedal launch as real pterosaurs probably did.
  • The first Silent Hill featured two monster, the Air Screamer and the Night Flutter. Those creatures were based on illustrations from one of Alexa's favourite book, The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, this being Silent Hill, the flying horrors haven been twisted by the town, with the Air Screamer resembling a hideously emaciated pterodactyl/bat hybrid and the Night Flutter possessing a human-like body and a wriggling mass of worms for a head.


Web Original


Western Animation

  • Good luck finding a cartoon whose pterosaurs aren't a seventies style Pteranodons with long tails. The Flintstones are the primary example of the typical western pterosaur.
  • Petrie in The Land Before Time looks like a seventies Pteranodon, but at least the animators tried to lessen the blow by giving him subtle influence from theories that were new back then and eventually turned out true, like making him walk on all fours most of the time and not mentioning his diet. The sequels, however, threw these hints to the garbage can and made all pterosaurs vulture expies that eat leaves.
  • The Secret Saturdays averts this slightly with Zon. For one side, she has fur, wings somewhat shaped like a real pterosaur's and walks on all four. On the other hand, the wing structure itself is wrong, she can stand on two legs for quite some time and that is how she takes off. It is possible that the mistakes are just to make her appropriately "cartoony" for the show, as the authors do seem to actually do research.
  • Turu the trained (and toothed) Pteranodon on Jonny Quest. (To be fair, the "teeth" are presented as a serrated bill-- but that is hardly accurate, either.)
  • Terrorsaur's alt-mode in Beast Wars is a hairless Pteranodon with a beak full of teeth, and a scaly skin. He moved on the ground by hopping on his tiny back legs. A funny sight, actually.
  • Dinosaur Train has traditional cartoony Pteranodon as among the main cast, being scaly, cold-blooded, green, bipedal creatures with bat wings. Thankfully, at least the pterosaurs have wings that were supported by one finger, can fly actively and efficiently, and are acknowledged as not being dinosaurs, the Pteranodons do not have teeth, and several dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Troodon are equally more cartoony than realistic.
  • Terrible Dactyl from Dinosaucers was said to be a Pteranodon, but his actual design was mostly Rhamphorhyncus.
  • One episode of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius had a scaly Pteranodon that was able carry Sheen to its nest using it's feet. At least it didn't have teeth or a long tail...
  • Im A Dinosaur has a feathered Sordes and a Pteranodon that lives inland. Both perch in trees, are bipedal & and have three fingers (including the wing finger).


Real Life

  • David Peters is famous for depicting pterosaurs as bipedal, lizard like abominations, largely due to his bizarre fetish for Sharovipteryx, a Triassic gliding reptile with long legs with membranes attached, which he considers to be the ancestor of pterosaurs. In reality, we have absolutely no idea how Sharovipteryx or pterosaurs fit in the evolutionary tree of sauropsids, but general consensus is that pterosaurs are the closest relatives of dinosaurs, while Sharovipteryx represents an evolutionary dead end at the base of Archosauromorpha. Naturally, David Peters thinks both Sharovipteryx and pterosaurs are lizards. Amusingly enough, his ideas of pterosaurs being bipedal due to being related to Sharovipteryx become even more amusing when one considers that Sharovipteryx might had been quadrupedal like pterosaurs.

Notes

  1. that is, animals with backbones
  2. using "reptile" here in its traditional, non-monophyletic sense
  3. although that claim is subject to controversy
  4. Mind you, the animal would be walking or galloping up to you instead of snatching you on the fly.
  5. Related to this inaccuracy is what happens when fictional pterosaurs DO end up on land. In older works especially, fictional pterosaurs will stand and walk on their hind limbs, rather like birds (which are essentially dinosaurs, which also smacks of Item #3). This depiction may have been propagated by at least one rather controversial depiction of pterosaurs such as Harry Govier Seeley's bipedal Dimorphodon, and has been taken so far in fiction that pterosaurs may even be seen perching on tree branches in dinosaur movies. In reality, however, almost all known pterosaur trackways suggest that they were in fact quadrupedal. It Makes Sense in Context - Pterosaurs had a physique more similar to the great apes, in that most of their musculature is focused on their forelimbs, while their hindlimbs are small, positioned at the very back of their bodies, and quite weak. (In contrast, most birds have relatively large and powerful hindlimbs positioned directly under their bodies, owing to their dinosaur ancestry.) Given this front-heavy design, it would therefore make more sense for pterosaurs to walk on all fours, so as to avoid becoming literally weak in the knees.
  6. Notice above where it says its neck isn't flexible? Like a vulture, it'd need a flexible neck to dig into the carcass and root out bits of flesh, and it doesn't have one.
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