Pterosaurs, close cousins of dinosaurs, evolved sensitive beaks to help find food, much like modern-day ducks, research suggests.
These flying reptiles first emerged more than 200 million years ago and dominated the skies for at least 100 million years.
Some large-sized creatures are thought to have weighed more than 200kg and had wing spans of 10 metres or more – about the size of a small aeroplane like a Spitfire.
It was previously thought pterosaurs used large, well-developed eyes to spot prey before capturing it using their jaws or spearing it with sharp beaks.
But scientists from the universities of Portsmouth and Bath now believe some pterosaur species may have used the sensitive tip of their beak to hunt for food, just like modern-day ducks, sandpipers and kiwis. This tip is now thought to have had nerves passing through the bone.
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Lead author Professor David Martill, from the University of Portsmouth, re-studied the animal at the Natural History Museum in London. Of the findings, Martill said: “This new find hints that, like birds, the pterosaurs evolved a huge range of feeding strategies – including ways of finding their prey.
“Many pterosaurs would have used their sharp eyes to pick out prey on the wing, while stalking it on the ground.
“But this species apparently used the sensitive beak to find prey by touch – feeding on the ground and probing around in shallow water like a dabbling duck or spoonbill, perhaps even feeding at night.
“These animals could probably detect a fish in the muddiest of water.”
The researchers analysed the fossil of the pterosaur species known as Lonchodraco giganteus, which was found in a chalk pit near Kent.
They found dozens of tiny holes in the tip of the beak, which the scientists believe is where clusters of nerves passed through the bone.
A similar feature can be seen in the beaks of modern-day birds such as kiwis, sandpipers, snipes and spoonbills, ducks and geese, as well as ostriches, who rely on their sense of touch when hunting for food.
The nerves send electrical signals to the brain that allow these birds to sense prey in water as well as mud.
Study co-author Roy Smith, a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth, said: “I had always thought that pterosaurs found their prey using their excellent eyesight, but it seems they had other acute senses too.
“This study is particularly fascinating because it does suggest that some species of pterosaur could have been nocturnal, like bats today.”
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Dr Nick Longrich, from the University of Bath, who is also an author on the paper, added: “We often picture pterosaurs hunting on the wing and grabbing fish, like modern seagulls.
“Many probably did, but fossils give us a biased picture.
“Since most of the pterosaur fossils are from lakes, lagoons and seas, we find a lot of the pterosaurs that hunt over water.”
He added: “Pterosaurs clearly evolved a huge range of feeding habits, and rare finds like Lonchodraco hint at that.”
The findings are published in the journal Cretaceous Research.
Reader Q&A: How did dinosaurs grow so big?
Asked by: Ronan Conway, Belfast
For many animals, there was an intrinsic selective pressure in favour of increasing body size. Since you must share your evolutionary niche with the other members of your species, being slightly larger than your peers helps you eat the higher leaves, catch bigger prey and defend a larger territory. Even more importantly, the larger you are, the safer you are from predators.
Over time, this selective pressure has caused many animal lineages to gradually increase in size. In 2009, scientists in South Africa reported evidence that dinosaurs became larger as they switched from walking on two legs to four.
But being large also means you need more food, can’t escape from natural disasters so easily and reproduce more slowly. As such the fossil record is littered with examples of animals that slowly increased in size before going abruptly extinct.