Prehistoric Sharks Feasted On Flying Reptiles, Fossil Reveals

a body of water: A Pteranodon falls prey to the ancient shark Squalicorax kaupi in an illustration.© Illustration by Mark Witton A Pteranodon falls prey to the ancient shark Squalicorax kaupi in an illustration. A series of bite marks on a pterosaur’s wing bone reveals that it likely ended up as the meal of several large predatory fish, including a prehistoric shark called Squalicorax.

The 83-million-year-old fossil, found in 2014 at a paleontological site in Alabama, adds to growing evidence that these weird wonders on wings were sometimes snacks for dinosaurs, prehistoric crocodile relatives, and large fish. After all, pterosaurs were not just bags of bones and leathery skin, as people might assume.

“Pterosaurs actually had a lot of meat on their skeletons,” says Michael Habib, a pterosaur expert at the University of Southern California who was not involved with the latest find. “They were not the skinny animals often depicted in films and art. The flight muscles in particular would have made a great meal.”

The chewed-up wing bone of this particular pterosaur, a Pteranodon, suggests that it had a 15-foot wingspan. But the animal may have weighed just 60 to 90 pounds, which would have made it easy prey for a large bony fish or a Squalicorax, an extinct shark that reached up to about 15 feet in length. (This pterosaur found in Canada was about the size of a house cat.)

And according to the new study, published in the journal Palaios, the marks on the ancient bone match up nicely with the teeth spacing of two fossil fish: Squalicorax and a four- to six-foot-long barracuda-like species called Saurodon.

“This one was unusual, because it showed what we interpret as bite marks from two different groups of animals,” says lead author Dana Ehret, a paleontologist at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.

“This is a very exciting find, because feeding traces on pterosaur bones are rare,” Habib adds.

So Many Sharks

  • This nearly whole, deep-black skull belongs to the most complete specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex on display in Europe, an individual nicknamed Tristan Otto. With 170 of its 300-odd bones preserved, this scientifically important but privately owned skeleton is currently at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. Discovered in 2010 in Montana’s famed Hell Creek Formation of the late Cretaceous, the 40-foot-long fossil took four years to excavate and prepare.
  • a tree in front of a large rock: This picture shows armored plates on the spectacularly complete fossil of an ankylosaur named Borealopelta markmitchelli; the lighter bands represent more flexible tissue between this dinosaur’s tough defensive exterior. Discovered in 2011 at an oil sands mine in the Canadian state of Alberta, the fossil bears a crack from the impact of a tractor shovel. Thankfully, it was rescued from the mining machinery before more damage occurred. After six years and 7,000 hours of preparation, it is now on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum.
  • a dinosaur with a building in the background: Exhibition workers put the finishing touches on an anatomically precise, life-size reconstruction of a Spinosaurus aegypticus skeleton created from digital models of the fossil bones. The 50-foot-long model went on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., in September 2014 as the centerpiece of the “Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” exhibition.
  • a close up of an animal: The fossil deposits of Liaoning, China, not only preserve dinosaurs, but also early birds, such as these delicate and beautiful specimens of the 120- to 125-million-year-old species Confuciusornis sanctus. This bird – noted for its two long, ribbon-like tail feathers – is one of the most commonly discovered animals in the Yixian and Jiufotang formations of the early Cretaceous, with many hundreds of specimens now in Chinese museums. This means researchers can ask questions about variation within the population, an unusual opportunity in a fossil species.
  • a close up of a rock: A closeup shows the spine and tail bristles on an incredibly well-preserved fossil of the herbivorous dinosaur Psittacosaurus mongoliensis, on display at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. These bristles are likely related to the feathers found on other dinosaurs and may have been used for communication and display. The dark material seen here is the preserved remains of soft tissue, such as skin.
  • a close up of a reptile: Protoceratops andrewsi, an early relative of the horned dinosaur Triceratops, is seen on display at CosmoCaixa Barcelona as part of an exhibit of dinosaurs from Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Sheep-size Protoceratops was a major prey animal for the turkey-size Velociraptor mongoliensis, and remarkable fossils of the two have sometimes been found locked in combat.
  • a close up of a reptile: This skull of the dinosaur Velociraptor mongoliensis comes from the early Cretaceous formations in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Made famous by the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, these dromaeosaurs were much smaller in real life than what’s been depicted in the film and its sequels, reaching just 1.6 feet high and likely weighing little more than about 33 pounds.
  • a close up of an animal: The name of this species, Mei long, comes from the Chinese for “soundly sleeping dragon,” reflecting the fact that this remarkable fossil captures a rare and peaceful moment of dinosaur behavior. Seen here from underneath, this troodontid is tucked up in the roosting position familiar from modern birds, with its head nestled under its forearm. The folded-up feet and legs run right-left in this image, with the tail wrapped across the top.
  • a close up of an animal: A detail shows the feet and claws of a near-complete specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex dubbed Tristan Otto, which is on display at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. In life these claw bones would have been covered with keratin sheaths, akin to the claws of a cat, but much larger and capable of inflicting far more significant damage.
  • a rocky beach: A set of dinosaur tracks crosses the Valley of the Dinosaurs in Sousa, northeastern Brazil. While fossilized dinosaur bones tell us about the anatomy of these long-extinct animals, so-called ichnofossils such as footprints, teeth marks, nest scrapes, and coprolites (dung) give us important clues to the behavior and lives of ancient species.
  • Stitched together from a number of images, this panorama shows the massive reconstruction of a titanosaur sauropod installed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in January 2016. This 122-foot behemoth may be the largest dinosaur that ever lived and was described as a new species dubbed Patagotitan mayorum in 2017, based on a number of fossils excavated from the Chubut region of Patagonia in Argentina.
Full screen1/11 SLIDES © Photography by Gerd Ludwig
This nearly whole, deep-black skull belongs to the most complete specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex on display in Europe, an individual nicknamed Tristan Otto. With 170 of its 300-odd bones preserved, this scientifically important but privately owned skeleton is currently at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. Discovered in 2010 in Montana’s famed Hell Creek Formation of the late Cretaceous, the 40-foot-long fossil took four years to excavate and prepare.
2/11 SLIDES © Photography by Robert Clark
This picture shows armored plates on the spectacularly complete fossil of an ankylosaur named Borealopelta markmitchelli; the lighter bands represent more flexible tissue between this dinosaur’s tough defensive exterior. Discovered in 2011 at an oil sands mine in the Canadian state of Alberta, the fossil bears a crack from the impact of a tractor shovel. Thankfully, it was rescued from the mining machinery before more damage occurred. After six years and 7,000 hours of preparation, it is now on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum.
3/11 SLIDES © Photography by Mike Hettwer
Exhibition workers put the finishing touches on an anatomically precise, life-size reconstruction of a Spinosaurus aegypticus skeleton created from digital models of the fossil bones. The 50-foot-long model went on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., in September 2014 as the centerpiece of the “Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” exhibition.
4/11 SLIDES © Photography by O. Louis Mazzatenta
The fossil deposits of Liaoning, China, not only preserve dinosaurs, but also early birds, such as these delicate and beautiful specimens of the 120- to 125-million-year-old species Confuciusornis sanctus. This bird – noted for its two long, ribbon-like tail feathers – is one of the most commonly discovered animals in the Yixian and Jiufotang formations of the early Cretaceous, with many hundreds of specimens now in Chinese museums. This means researchers can ask questions about variation within the population, an unusual opportunity in a fossil species.
5/11 SLIDES © Photography by Robert Clark
A closeup shows the spine and tail bristles on an incredibly well-preserved fossil of the herbivorous dinosaur Psittacosaurus mongoliensis, on display at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. These bristles are likely related to the feathers found on other dinosaurs and may have been used for communication and display. The dark material seen here is the preserved remains of soft tissue, such as skin.
6/11 SLIDES © Photography by Xavier Fores - Joana Roncero/Alamy
Protoceratops andrewsi, an early relative of the horned dinosaur Triceratops, is seen on display at CosmoCaixa Barcelona as part of an exhibit of dinosaurs from Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Sheep-size Protoceratops was a major prey animal for the turkey-size Velociraptor mongoliensis, and remarkable fossils of the two have sometimes been found locked in combat.
7/11 SLIDES © Photography by Phil Degginger/ Carnegie Museum/ Alamy
This skull of the dinosaur Velociraptor mongoliensis comes from the early Cretaceous formations in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Made famous by the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, these dromaeosaurs were much smaller in real life than what’s been depicted in the film and its sequels, reaching just 1.6 feet high and likely weighing little more than about 33 pounds.
8/11 SLIDES © Photography by O. Louis Mazzatenta
The name of this species, Mei long, comes from the Chinese for “soundly sleeping dragon,” reflecting the fact that this remarkable fossil captures a rare and peaceful moment of dinosaur behavior. Seen here from underneath, this troodontid is tucked up in the roosting position familiar from modern birds, with its head nestled under its forearm. The folded-up feet and legs run right-left in this image, with the tail wrapped across the top.
9/11 SLIDES © Photography by Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency/Getty
A detail shows the feet and claws of a near-complete specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex dubbed Tristan Otto, which is on display at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. In life these claw bones would have been covered with keratin sheaths, akin to the claws of a cat, but much larger and capable of inflicting far more significant damage.
10/11 SLIDES © Photography by Pulsar Images/ Alamy
A set of dinosaur tracks crosses the Valley of the Dinosaurs in Sousa, northeastern Brazil. While fossilized dinosaur bones tell us about the anatomy of these long-extinct animals, so-called ichnofossils such as footprints, teeth marks, nest scrapes, and coprolites (dung) give us important clues to the behavior and lives of ancient species.
11/11 SLIDES © Photography by Xinhua/ Alamy
Stitched together from a number of images, this panorama shows the massive reconstruction of a titanosaur sauropod installed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in January 2016. This 122-foot behemoth may be the largest dinosaur that ever lived and was described as a new species dubbed Patagotitan mayorum in 2017, based on a number of fossils excavated from the Chubut region of Patagonia in Argentina.
11/11 SLIDES

While preparing the fossil at the University of Alabama Museum, Ehret’s coauthor and then-graduate student T. Lynn Harrell was initially concerned that he’d damaged the bone while removing surface chalk. But it soon became clear that a series of darker parallel grooves were instead evidence of a predator.

“He thought I was going to be mad at him,” Ehret says. “But as he prepared it, he recognized that there were four [marks] parallel to one another, and that they represented a feeding trace.”

To investigate further, the pair started to pull the fossil jaws of various carnivorous fish out of the museum’s collection to compare them to the marks. They realized that the dark grooves and more subtle serrated scratch marks lined up almost identically with the teeth of Saurodon, and Squalicorax.

Many fossils from late Cretaceous Alabama appear to have been nibbled by sharks, including sea turtles and dinosaurs, which are often “covered in predation marks,” says Ehret. Parts of Alabama were then submerged by shallow, warm waters that were the gateway to the Western Interior Seaway, a massive body of water that ran down the center of North America, splitting the continent in two.

Based on the fossil record, this highly productive region was brimming with sharks: “I’ve never seen so many shark teeth, and I’ve collected all over the world,” Ehret says. “It was just so abundant with different sharks.”

Uncovering the Tooth

Pteranodon also inhabited this coastal environment during the late Cretaceous, making a living snatching smaller fish from the shark-filled waters. Pterosaurs could float, but being less buoyant than birds, they probably didn’t sit on the surface for long, adds Habib. Some species, including Pteranodon, did likely plunge into the water for prey.

“They could then quickly take back off from the surface. But these diving pterosaurs might have been vulnerable to sharks just after they entered the water,” he says.

  • a close up of a reptile: An image of the Pteranodon bone paired with the fossil jaws of the ancient bony fish Saurodon leanus.
  • This cast of the extravagantly crested duck-billed hadrosaur Parasaurolophus walkeri is on display at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. The nasal passages and forehead of this species extend to the rear of its head, forming a six-foot-long hollow, bony crest. This is thought to have been used as a resonance chamber, akin to a wind instrument such as a trombone or trumpet, likely allowing the species to produce loud calls that carried over great distances.
  • a close up of a dinosaur: This closeup shows the formidable teeth and jaws of a female Tyrannosaurus rex known as ‘Trix,” which is on display at the Natural History Museum of Leiden in the Netherlands. Excavated in 2013 in Montana by museum scientists, the fossil skeleton is more than 80 percent complete, ranking it among the top T. rex specimens in the world.
  • a large desert landscape: Two sets of footprints at the Moenkopi Dinosaur Tracks in Arizona were likely left by a mother and a young Dilophosaurus wetherilli about 193 million years ago – an evocative record of dinosaur behavior from the early Jurassic period. These narrow, three-toed footprints are typical of carnivorous theropod dinosaurs.
  • a canyon with a mountain in the background: As winds and rain pound surface layers of sediment, they slowly expose any dinosaur fossils encased within, which are made of more hardy material. Here, a two-foot-long section of the tail of a duck-billed hadrosaur emerges from sandstone. Some of the world’s best fossil-hunting locales are badlands, where surface sediments are rapidly eroded by weathering.
  • a zebra lying down in the dirt: A skull of the late Jurassic predatory dinosaur Allosaurus fragilis remains encased in rock in the Quarry Exhibit Hall of the Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Utah. The apex carnivore of its time, Allosaurus terrorized the western United States about 150 to 155 million years ago.
  • a close up of a dinosaur: This highly ornamented dinosaur, featured on the December 2007 cover of National Geographic magazine, was originally described as a new species called Dracorex hogwartsia, or “dragon king of Hogwarts” after the wizarding school in the Harry Potter books. However, subsequent research from several teams suggests that this unusual skull covered in spikes and knobs belongs to a juvenile form of the dome-headed dinosaur Pachycephalosaurus.
  • At about 200 million years old, the dainty carnivore Coelophysis bauri was one of the earliest dinosaurs to live in the U.S. Southwest. This late Triassic species, which is the state fossil of New Mexico, reached up to 9.8 feet in length but weighed just 33 to 44 pounds. This specimen has its head twisted back over its spine in what is known as the “death pose” – a common position for fossilized dinosaurs that is possibly caused by the contraction of muscles and ligament after death.
  • These eggs belonged to sauropods, giant long-necked dinosaurs that grew to be the largest land animals that ever lived. While sauropod eggs have been found across the world, from Spain and France to Argentina and the United States, these particular specimens still embedded in rock hail from China. Dinosaur eggs are usually found in groups and would have been laid in depressions in the ground. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the species, but sauropod eggs are typically round and about the size of a grapefruit.
  • Sinosauropteryx prima, from China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, was found in 1996 and is recognized as the first known feathered dinosaur. The discovery of downy plumage – seen here as dark fuzz surrounding the fossil – shook the foundations of paleontology; many dinosaur experts were already convinced that birds descended from dinosaurs, but here was the feathery proof turned to stone. More than 50 other species of dinosaur have been found with impressions or other evidence of feathers in the past few decades.
  • a close up of an animal: This unusual skull comes from a relative of Triceratops named Kosmoceratops richardsoni. This rhino-size ceratopsian dinosaur lived on the late Cretaceous landmass of Laramidia, which is today the western part of North America. Kosmoceratops means “ornamented horned face,” and the species has 15 horns and frills on its skull, which were likely used to attract mates or battle rivals rather than defend against predators.
  • a close up of a dinosaur: This cast of Triceratops horridus resides at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. Triceratops was the first known horned dinosaur, or ceratopsian, described in 1889. More than 80 other species of ceratopsians have now been described, the vast majority from western North America, and new finds are revealed every year.
  • a close up of a bug: A close-up shows the tail region of the early Cretaceous Chinese dinosaur, Sinornithosaurus millenii. This feathered dromaeosaur relative of Velociraptor had ossified tendons in its tail anchored by its vertebrae or backbones. These narrow bony rods stiffened the tail, improving balance and aiding maneuverability for this fleet-footed, predatory species.
Full screen1/13 SLIDES © Photograph by Dana Ehret, PALAIOS
An image of the Pteranodon bone paired with the fossil jaws of the ancient bony fish Saurodon leanus.
2/13 SLIDES © Photography by Hinrich Baesemann/ DPA Picture Alliance Archive/ Alamy
This cast of the extravagantly crested duck-billed hadrosaur Parasaurolophus walkeri is on display at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. The nasal passages and forehead of this species extend to the rear of its head, forming a six-foot-long hollow, bony crest. This is thought to have been used as a resonance chamber, akin to a wind instrument such as a trombone or trumpet, likely allowing the species to produce loud calls that carried over great distances.
3/13 SLIDES © Photography by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty
This closeup shows the formidable teeth and jaws of a female Tyrannosaurus rex known as ‘Trix,” which is on display at the Natural History Museum of Leiden in the Netherlands. Excavated in 2013 in Montana by museum scientists, the fossil skeleton is more than 80 percent complete, ranking it among the top T. rex specimens in the world.
4/13 SLIDES © Photography by Carver Mostardi/ Alamy
Two sets of footprints at the Moenkopi Dinosaur Tracks in Arizona were likely left by a mother and a young Dilophosaurus wetherilli about 193 million years ago – an evocative record of dinosaur behavior from the early Jurassic period. These narrow, three-toed footprints are typical of carnivorous theropod dinosaurs.
5/13 SLIDES © Photography by Cory Richards
As winds and rain pound surface layers of sediment, they slowly expose any dinosaur fossils encased within, which are made of more hardy material. Here, a two-foot-long section of the tail of a duck-billed hadrosaur emerges from sandstone. Some of the world’s best fossil-hunting locales are badlands, where surface sediments are rapidly eroded by weathering.
6/13 SLIDES © Photography by Breck P. Kent/ Animals Animals/ Earth Scenes
A skull of the late Jurassic predatory dinosaur Allosaurus fragilis remains encased in rock in the Quarry Exhibit Hall of the Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Utah. The apex carnivore of its time, Allosaurus terrorized the western United States about 150 to 155 million years ago.
7/13 SLIDES © Photography by Ira Block
This highly ornamented dinosaur, featured on the December 2007 cover of National Geographic magazine, was originally described as a new species called Dracorex hogwartsia, or “dragon king of Hogwarts” after the wizarding school in the Harry Potter books. However, subsequent research from several teams suggests that this unusual skull covered in spikes and knobs belongs to a juvenile form of the dome-headed dinosaur Pachycephalosaurus.
8/13 SLIDES © Photography by Norebert Wu/ Minden Pictures
At about 200 million years old, the dainty carnivore Coelophysis bauri was one of the earliest dinosaurs to live in the U.S. Southwest. This late Triassic species, which is the state fossil of New Mexico, reached up to 9.8 feet in length but weighed just 33 to 44 pounds. This specimen has its head twisted back over its spine in what is known as the “death pose” – a common position for fossilized dinosaurs that is possibly caused by the contraction of muscles and ligament after death.
9/13 SLIDES © Photography by Scenics & Science/Alamy
These eggs belonged to sauropods, giant long-necked dinosaurs that grew to be the largest land animals that ever lived. While sauropod eggs have been found across the world, from Spain and France to Argentina and the United States, these particular specimens still embedded in rock hail from China. Dinosaur eggs are usually found in groups and would have been laid in depressions in the ground. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the species, but sauropod eggs are typically round and about the size of a grapefruit.
10/13 SLIDES © Photography by O. Louis Mazzatenta
Sinosauropteryx prima, from China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, was found in 1996 and is recognized as the first known feathered dinosaur. The discovery of downy plumage – seen here as dark fuzz surrounding the fossil – shook the foundations of paleontology; many dinosaur experts were already convinced that birds descended from dinosaurs, but here was the feathery proof turned to stone. More than 50 other species of dinosaur have been found with impressions or other evidence of feathers in the past few decades.
11/13 SLIDES © Photography by Cory Richards
This unusual skull comes from a relative of Triceratops named Kosmoceratops richardsoni. This rhino-size ceratopsian dinosaur lived on the late Cretaceous landmass of Laramidia, which is today the western part of North America. Kosmoceratops means “ornamented horned face,” and the species has 15 horns and frills on its skull, which were likely used to attract mates or battle rivals rather than defend against predators.
12/13 SLIDES © Photography by All Canada Photos/ Alamy
This cast of Triceratops horridus resides at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. Triceratops was the first known horned dinosaur, or ceratopsian, described in 1889. More than 80 other species of ceratopsians have now been described, the vast majority from western North America, and new finds are revealed every year.
13/13 SLIDES © Photography by O. Louis Mazzatenta
A close-up shows the tail region of the early Cretaceous Chinese dinosaur, Sinornithosaurus millenii. This feathered dromaeosaur relative of Velociraptor had ossified tendons in its tail anchored by its vertebrae or backbones. These narrow bony rods stiffened the tail, improving balance and aiding maneuverability for this fleet-footed, predatory species.
13/13 SLIDES

It’s certainly plausible that a predatory fish leapt out of the water to grab this Pteranodon or took one at the surface, Ehret says, although it’s hard to know for sure based on just this one bone. It’s also possible that the animal died near the shore and was scavenged when it washed out to sea. (Of course, some larger pterosaurs could turn the tables and prey on dinosaurs.)

Mysteries endure in part because pterosaurs with these kinds of feeding traces are very rare, says Mark Witton, a pterosaur expert at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. The animals had fragile, air-filled bones that would more likely have shattered under the force of a shark bite.

“The record is small, but it is growing,” says Witton, who is the coauthor along with Habib on an upcoming paper about a Pteranodon vertebrae with a tooth embedded in it from an even larger shark called Cretoxyrhina, which reached up to 23 feet in length.

Of more than 1,100 known specimens of Pteranodon, Witton estimates that perhaps half a dozen have evidence of shark bites, most of which have not been studied in detail.

He praises the latest work by Ehret and Harrell because they have “gone to town to demonstrate what the identification of the [predatory] animals were … It’s nice to know what species were interacting in this way.”

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Prehistoric Sharks Feasted On Flying Reptiles, Fossil Reveals

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Prehistoric Sharks Feasted On Flying Reptiles, Fossil Reveals

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Prehistoric Sharks Feasted On Flying Reptiles, Fossil Reveals

Prehistoric Sharks Feasted On Flying Reptiles, Fossil Reveals

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Prehistoric Sharks Feasted On Flying Reptiles, Fossil Reveals