Pterosaur That Tried to Eat an Ancient Squid 150 Million Years Ago Lost a Tooth in the Attack

An ancient squid has been discovered with the tooth of a pterosaur embedded in its body. This the first evidence of a failed attack by one of these flying reptiles, giving an insight into their hunting behavior and diet over 150 million years ago.

Pterosaurs were winged reptiles that appeared on Earth about 228 million years ago. They went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago. There are over 100 known species of pterosaur, with some of the largest having a wingspan of up to 32 feet.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers show how a pterosaur called Rhamphorhynchus muensteri had tried to catch a coleoid cephalopod—a group that includes squid and octopus—but in doing so had its tooth ripped out.

The fossilized coleoid, Plesioteuthis, was discovered in sediments in the lagoons of the Solnhofen Archipelago, Germany, about a decade ago. This creature lived between 150 and 155 million years ago. Because of their soft bodies, few examples of this species have been found in the fossil record. However, thanks to the conditions in the lagoon—high salinity and low oxygen concentrations—this individual was preserved.

"Under normal conditions, 99 percent of all dead organisms become decomposed without leaving any recognizable traces," study authors René Hoffmann, from Germany's Ruhr-University Bochum, and Jordan Bestwick, from the U.K.'s University of Leicester, told Newsweek in an email.

Evidence of a failed attempt to hunt is rare in the fossil record, the team notes, "but essential for reconstructing extinct food webs."

Pterosaur hunting squid
Artist impression of the pterosaur hunting the squid-like creature. Hoffmann et al/Scientific Reports

Analysis of the Plesioteuthis fossil suggests the pterosaur attacked it at or close to the surface of the water. "It remains unclear whether the Plesioteuthis died from the pterosaur attack or survived for some time with the broken tooth lodged in its mantle," they wrote.

"If the predator does not kill its prey with the first bite the prey, of course, will show some heavy reactions trying to escape," Hoffmann and Bestwick said. "Specifically, cephalopods have a strong mantle musculature they normally use for swimming. So a few muscle contractions and a more or less loose tooth and the cephalopod could escape."

Pterosaur tooth
Image showing the pterosaur tooth that was embedded in the body of Plesioteuthis. Hoffmann et al/Scientific Reports

They explained Rhamphorhynchus probably did not skim over the water like some birds today, nor were they likely to have dived into the water like gannets. Instead, they think the pterosaur plucked prey from the surface of the water while in flight, or while resting on the surface, similar to modern seagulls.

What the findings do suggest, the researchers wrote, is that these pterosaurs were predatory animals, rather than scavengers. Several Rhamphorhynchus fossils have previously been found in the jaws of predatory fish, which the researchers say adds to evidence they would have been present at the surface of the water.

"It should be noted that until additional similar specimens are found, it remains impossible to rule out that the pterosaur misinterpreted the cephalopod as a different food item," they wrote. "Nevertheless, the specimen is important for understanding ecological interactions between Solnhofen taxa, and it is conceivable that pterosaurs were possibly at least somewhat opportunistic in their choice of prey."