Rhamphorhynchus (Greek for "beak snout"); pronounced RAM-foe-RINK-us
Shores of Western Europe
Late Jurassic (165-150 million years ago)
Size and Weight:
Wingspan of three feet and a few pounds
Long, narrow beak with sharp teeth; tail ending with diamond-shaped skin flap
The exact size of Rhamphorhynchus depends on how you measure it--from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, this pterosaur was less than a foot long, but its wings (when fully extended) stretched an impressive three feet from tip to tip. With its long, narrow beak and sharp teeth, it's clear that Rhamphorhynchus made its living by dipping its snout into the lakes and rivers of late Jurassic Europe and scooping up wriggling fish (and possibly frogs and insects)--much like a modern pelican.
One detail about Rhamphorhynchus that sets it apart from other ancient reptiles is the spectacularly preserved specimens discovered at the Solnhofen fossil beds in Germany--some of this pterosaur's remains are so complete that they display not only its detailed bone structure, but the outlines of its internal organs as well. The only creature to have left comparably intact remains was another Solnhofen discovery, Archaeopteryx--which, unlike Rhamphorhynchus, was technically a dinosaur that occupied a place on the evolutionary line leading to the first prehistoric birds.
After nearly two centuries of study, scientists know a lot about Rhamphorhynchus. This pterosaur had a relatively slow growth rate, roughly comparable to that of modern alligators, and it may have been sexually dimorphic (that is, one sex, we don't know which, was slightly larger than the other). Rhamphorhynchus probably hunted at night, and it likely held its narrow head and beak parallel to the ground, as can be inferred from scans of its brain cavity. It also seems that Rhamphorhynchus preyed on the ancient fish Aspidorhynchus, the fossils of which are "associated" (that is, located in close proximity) in the Solnhofen sediments.
The original discovery, and classification, of Rhamphorhynchus is a case study in well-meaning confusion. After it was unearthed in 1825, this pterosaur was classified as a species of Pterodactylus, which at the time was also known by the now-discarded genus name Ornithocephalus ("bird head"). Twenty years later, Ornithocephalus reverted to Pterodactylus, and in 1861 the famous British naturalist Richard Owen promoted P. muensteri to the genus Rhamphorhynchus. We won't even mention how the type specimen of Rhamphorhynchus was lost during World War II; suffice it to say that paleontologists have had to make do with plaster casts of the original fossil.
Because Rhamphorhynchus was discovered so early in the history of modern paleontology, it has lent its name to an entire class of pterosaurs distinguished by their small sizes, big heads and long tails. Among the most famous "rhamphorhynchoids" are Dorygnathus, Dimorphodon and Peteinosaurus, which ranged across western Europe during the late Jurassic period; these stand in stark contrast to "pterodactyloid" pterosaurs of the later Mesozoic Era, which tended to larger sizes and smaller tails. (The biggest pterodactyloid of them all, Quetzalcoatlus, had a wingspan the size of a small airplane!)