Winged reptiles were primitive, clumsy, “prehistoric” beasts, barely able to get off the ground, right? Take a closer look and see.
As big as a hang glider and bristling with teeth, it’s no wonder this fossil flying monster is called Anhanguera (ahn-yang-WHERE-ah), or “old devil.” Today, you may see Anhanguera in a museum’s “Prehistoric Flight” display, but there’s nothing primitive about it. From head to tail, the old devil was loaded with unique and sophisticated flying designs.
Anhanguera was geared to soar on narrow, sailplane-like wings that spanned 15 feet (4.5 m). As with other pterosaurs, more than half the wing’s length actually trailed from a single supersized finger, the fourth digit (corresponding to our ring finger). This gigantic wing finger had to be large enough and strong enough to bear the stresses on the main wing membrane, which stretched from the fingertip all the way to the ankle.
Much more than a simple flap of skin stretched over bones, the pterosaur wing packed all the complexity of the most advanced jet fighter wing—flaps, ailerons, spoilers, and more—into an incredibly thin sheet.
The wing membrane consisted of three layers. The outermost layer was made of long, thin, structural fibers called actinofibrils (ak-TIN-oh-FYE-brils), found only in pterosaurs. These fibers kept the membrane stretched tight during flight. Just below was an intricate web of muscle and connective tissue that allowed Anhanguera to control the curvature of its wing even more precisely than birds do. The deepest layer consisted of the blood vessels that fed the muscles. All this squeezed into a wing membrane just hundredths of an inch—a millimeter or two—thick!
Pterosaurs didn’t have feathers or hair to protect them from the wind chill of flying, like birds and bats do. They had their own system instead. Covering most of the body were short, quarter-inch (5–7 mm) hair-like structures called pycnofibers (PICK-no-FYE-berz). They aren’t frequently fossilized, but when preserved they have been found on the head, body, and limbs (not on the wings so far). Though pycnofibers’ structure differs from mammal hair, they attached to the skin and likely performed some of the same functions.
This unique insulation gave the old devil a distinctly fuzzy appearance. While pycnofibers show no direct evidence of color, advanced ultraviolet photography of some pterosaur fossils shows they possessed beautiful color patterns on their crests. So forget the dull greens and grays in old dinosaur books; pterosaurs flew with flair!
Large openings keep the skull lightweight. The narrow shape reduces weight and improves aerodynamics.
The neck bones are hollow, making the skeleton lighter and providing space for air sacs to keep oxygen flowing to the flight muscles.
The pteroid bone is unique to pterosaurs. This wrist bone points back toward the chest and stabilizes a small part of the wing in front of the arm.
The breastbone is broad for attaching powerful flight muscles.
The pelvic bones are fused to the lower vertebrae, forming a stiff and stable region (the synsacrum) that has hollow bones for more air sacs.
To make flight possible you need lots of oxygen flowing through your body. To help with this, Anhanguera had pneumatized (NEW-mah-tized) bones—hollow bones that contained air sacs. The air sacs inflated and deflated like balloons, drawing in air and continuously passing it through the lungs. The lungs themselves didn’t inflate because Anhanguera’s chest was stiff and could not expand like ours.
The pneumatized bones in the neck, arm, back, and pelvic regions are clues that Anhanguera had an advanced, lightweight, ultra-efficient, bird-like respiratory system to keep it flying for long periods out over the ocean.
While flying, Anhanguera was looking for food. With large, forward-facing eyes, it had great eyesight. The big eye sockets and long, toothy jaw make the skull look large from the side, but it was narrow and filled with open cavities to be aerodynamic and lightweight.
The old devil’s mouth was filled with teeth, ideal for scooping up fish, which, in the post-Fall world, made up nearly all of its diet. Anhanguera was initially created to eat plants, and its tooth structure was likely different at the beginning. But by the time of the Flood, the whole world was filled with violence, and this includes the specimens buried by the Flood (Genesis 6:11).
Anhanguera belongs to a large group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs, which had many other cutting-edge designs for flight, including unique bones, fused vertebrae, and large brains with specialized regions that processed flight inputs. Each pterosaur displays its own variation on central themes: body size, wing shape, crest, tail, and no doubt color, behavior, and more. God’s astounding variety and intricate designs continue to show us His great creativity and love of a bountiful creation.
Diet: Anhanguera ate fish, probably by flying low to the ocean surface and occasionally plunging the end of its toothy jaws into the water.
Habitat: Anhanguera likely nested on coastal lands near the shore and its ocean food source. (Locations of known remains are in Brazil and England)