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These dramatic reptiles arose in the Triassic and continued a150 million-year sovereignty until the end of the Cretaceous. During this time they were uncontested champions of flight, and ruled the skies. Although often thought of as dinosaurs, they were but cousins to them. Sometimes incorrectly called pterodactyls (members of a specific genus within the pterosaurs, but not a synonym), pterosaurs were the first flying vertebrates and had a spread from wingtip to wingtip of about 16 cm to over 15 meters. The latter behemoth was Quetzalcoatlus northropi and was the largest creature to ever fly.  By comparison, the largest wingspan of a living bird, a wondering albatross, has been measured at a bit over 3.6 meters, less than one-quarter of the wing extent of this magnificent reptile.

Although we know little about the eyes, they were enormous and contained scleral ossicles (bones to support the structure of the eye) just like most reptiles. Many investigators believe they were warm-blooded, and probably had good if not excellent eyesight—just like birds. The pterosaur’s internal nutritional structures and retinal circuitry were likely very similar to those of modern birds, too. While most were likely diurnal predators, pterosaurs had likely had nocturnal lineages, as well.

The fossil braincases of these creatures have been examined and show enlarged floccular lobes. The flocculus is important in balance and flight and birds have similar enlargements. These measurements strongly suggest that the pterosaurs were highly skilled predators with accurate visual processing and spectacular flying abilities. Some of the largest of them probably weighed up to 65 kilograms, and must have had a daunting and frightening presence coming over any horizon.