Pterodactyl: Squid hunting with tooth loss

Pterosaur

This may have led to the discovery of the fossil. (Image: Christian Klug and Beat Scheffold)

In the age of the dinosaurs, the pterosaurs were the undisputed rulers of the air. Many of these reptiles also hunted their prey in flight, snapping fish out of the water, for example. An unusual fossil find testifies to such a hunting attempt that failed: Researchers discovered a pterodactyl tooth in a 152 million year old squid fossil from the Solnhofen limestone. The biter was directly in the soft tissue of the cephalopod. It is the first evidence that pterosaurs ate these animals, the team reports.

Eating and being eaten are naturally part of the game of life. Whoever is a predator and who is prey says a lot about how an ecosystem works. Such relationships are therefore also of interest to researchers who dedicate themselves to past times such as the era of the dinosaurs. For example, petrified stomach contents have already told them that some pterosaur species hunt for fish in the sea – these reptiles were the first vertebrates on earth to fly. “Unfortunately, direct evidence of successful or unsuccessful hunting attempts is rare in the fossil record,” explain RenĂ© Hoffmann from the Ruhr University in Bochum and his colleagues.

Squid Fossil
There is a tooth in this petrified cephalopod. (Photo: Michael Schwettmann)

Failed eating attempt

All the more exciting is the discovery of a fossilization from the Solnhofen limestone in southern Germany: the 152 million year old fossil of an octopus together with a pterodactyl tooth. But was the biter only coincidentally preserved with this marine animal or is there more behind it? To find out, the scientists looked closely at the fossil. As they report, the soft bodies of the cephalopod are very well preserved – thanks to the special petrification conditions in Solnhofen. Low oxygen, an increased salinity and calm water conditions led to the fact that soft tissues were phosphatised and thus preserved. This fabric glows white under UV light. In this way, Hoffmann’s team was able to make it clear that the tooth was actually stuck in the soft parts of the squid and hadn’t just fallen on it.

It was clear that the biter must have landed in the tissue due to a failed attempt to eat. The special feature: It is the first proof that pterosaurs also hunted cephalopods. But who wanted to make prey here? The scientists found that the tooth belonged to an almost fully grown pterosaur of the species Rhamphorhynchus muensteri – due to the petrified contents of the stomach, it was already known as a fish eater. The prey escaped from him can be assigned to the species Plesioteuthis subovata. According to the team, it is only the fourth fossil specimen of this cephalopod related to the octopus.

Happy victim?

Hoffmann and his colleagues do not believe that Rhamphorhynchus muensteri dived to the seabed to get carrion. You are therefore certain that the squid swam near the surface of the water when it was caught by the pterosaur flying over it, then defended itself and was finally able to free it – the pterodactyl broke a tooth. It remains a mystery whether the cephalopod died or survived immediately after the pterodactyl attack. “But the tooth is in a place where there are no vital organs,” explains Hoffmann. “So it may be that he lived on for a while.”

Source: René Hoffmann (Ruhr University Bochum) et al., Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038 / s41598-020-57731-2

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