Toothless 'Dragons' Roamed Our Skies
Pterosaurs were neither dinosaurs nor ancient birds but winged reptiles
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 20, 2014 1:53 PM CDT
This handout illustration provided by Johns Hopkins shows the 30-foot wingspan of the toothless pteranodon, left, which was surpassed by that of Hatzegopteryx, right, at 40 feet or more.   (AP Photo/Johns Hopkins University, Mark Witton)

(Newser) – A family of animals ruled the skies some 90 million years ago, but they weren't dinosaurs, and they weren't birds, and they didn't even have teeth. The winged reptiles of the late Cretaceous period belong to a family of pterosaurs called Azhdarchidae, and they appear to have had remarkable dominance for tens of millions of years, right up until dinosaurs also went extinct 66 million years ago, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing a new study in the journal ZooKeys. (The name comes from the Persian word for dragon, azdarha, notes Nature World News.)

The pterosaurs are extremely difficult to study, with only a few fossils found mostly in sedimentary deposits, according to a posting at Eureka Alert. The animals' bones were so thin and fragile that skeletal remains tend to be shattered and scrambled. The new study reassessed previous fossil research, concluding that the creatures played a pivotal role in the ecosystem of their day. Because pterosaurs are believed to be the first animals after insects to fly, understanding the gigantic predators could help scientists gain insights into the mechanics of early flight. (This ancient flying reptile had a head like a butterfly.)