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Fossil Reveals Mid-Air Battle Between Pterosaur and Prehistoric Shark

Imagine this: you’re a Pterosaur, a giant, prehistoric flying reptile. You’re the first type of vertebrate to develop powered flight. You have a wingspan of 18 feet. You’re feeling like a pretty cool dude.  You flap your wings, building the momentum needed to take off from the cool ocean water you were resting in. You achieve liftoff, just a second away from safe and uninterrupted flight to your next meal. Then a sound. A horrible splash. A six foot long shark leaps from the ocean and clutches its jaws around your neck. You both fall back into the briny deep. It’s a bad day to be a Pterosaur.

This, or something very close to it, is the story behind a recently analyzed fossil of a pterosaur’s collarbone. According to an article published in the journal PeerJ, the bone belonged to a Pteranodon, an iconic variety of pterosaur with the classic elongated head and enormous wingspan. Recently analysis of the collarbone gave researchers an rare look into the day-to-day struggle for existence that faced prehistoric animals. Namely being pulled out of the sky by a shark. Lodged in the Pteranodon’s collarbone is a tooth belonging to the prehistoric shark species Cretoxyrhina mantelli which grew up to eight feet in length and exhibited behavior which closely resembled modern great white sharks.

We will never know exactly how the battle between shark and pterosaur actually went down. It may have been a cinematic duel to the death worthy of David Attenborough’s fight commentating, or not. According to author of the paper Michael Habib:

“We know big sharks ate pterosaurs, so we could say a big fast predatory species could very well have eaten this Pteranodon when it entered the water, but we’ll probably never know exactly.”

Pteranodon

Pteranodon

Amazingly, this is the first time an interaction between these two species has been documented, yet according to lead author David Hone, it was not uncommon:

“Understanding the ecology of these animals is important to understanding life on Earth through time.

Are there sharks today that hunt seabirds? Yes, there are. Is that unique or have big sharks been hunting flying creatures for millions of years? The answer is yes, they have.

‘We now know sharks were hunting flying animals as long ago as 80 million years.”

The fossil was first found in the 1960’s in the Smokey Hill Chalk region of Kansas. It was only recently that researchers took another look and found the secret story it told.

Pteranodon fossil

Pteranodon fossil. Credit: Nina J. A. G (CC BY-ND 2.0)

While Kansas now seems like an unlikely place for sharks, it wasn’t always the case. A giant inland sea of staggering biodiversity once made up the interior of the US, stretching from the gulf of Mexico up through the great lakes. Now this region of the US is where some of the most exciting fossil finds occur.

Fossils are amazing in that they can tell whole dramas just by how the bones fell. Yet, more than most things, I want to see some dinosaurs in the flesh. If time travel is ever invented, the first people to go back in time need to be BBC’s nature photography crew. Realistically there’s no higher goal than breaking the space time continuum for the sole purpose of seeing some dinosaurs duke it out.

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Sequoyah is a writer, music producer, and poor man's renaissance man based in Providence, Rhode Island. He spends his time researching weird history and thinking about the place where cosmic horror overlaps with disco. You can follow him on Twitter: @shkennedy33.