Preondactylus (Greek for "Preone finger," after the region in Italy where it was discovered); pronounced PRE-on-DACK-till-us


Shores of southern Europe

Historical Period:

Late Triassic (215-200 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

Wingspan of one to two feet and less than a pound


Probably fish

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long beak and tail; relatively small size

About Preondactylus

Gross-out alert: paleontologists have identified two fossils of Preondactylus, one normal and the other not so normal, and both hailing from Italy's portion of the Alpian mountain chain. The normal fossil is an imprint of a nearly complete specimen, lacking only part of the head, encased in a 200-million-year-old slab of limestone. The not-so-normal fossil is a wadded-up ball of bones, as if a Preondactylus individual had been gobbled up a prehistoric trash compactor. As far as paleontologists can tell, this ball is what is known as a "fish pellet": the unfortunate Preondactylus had been eaten whole by a prehistoric fish, which then vomited out the indigestible bits, including the bones!

Now that that unpleasant detail is out of the way, what kind of creature was Preondactylus? Paleontologists have identified this long-tailed, narrow-beaked reptile as one of the most "basal" (i.e., earliest and least-evolved) pterosaurs in the fossil record, dating to late Triassic southern Europe. Preondactylus was closely related to other early pterosaurs like Rhamphorhynchus and Dorygnathus (hence its classification as a "rhamphorhynchoid" pterosaur, as opposed to the "pterodactyloid" pterosaurs of the later Mesozoic Era), and it probably made its living by plucking small fish out of the water (which would explain how that unfortunate individual wound up getting eaten by a fish itself).