Morphospaces of functionally analogous traits show ecological separation between birds and pterosaurs

Nicholas R. Chan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Birds originated and radiated in the presence of another group of flying vertebrates, the pterosaurs. Opinion is divided as to whether birds competitively displaced pterosaurs from small-body size niches or whether the two groups coexisted with little competition. Previous studies of Mesozoic birds and pterosaurs compared measurements of homologous limb bones to test these hypotheses. However, these characters probably reflect differing ancestries rather than ecologies. Here, competition and ecological separation were tested for using multivariate analyses of functionally equivalent morphological characters. As well as using characters from the fore- and hindlimbs, these analyses also included measurements of the lower jaw. The results of this study indicate that pterosaurs had relatively longer jaws, shorter metatarsals and shorter brachial regions compared with birds of similar size. Contrary to the results of previous studies, the distal wing was not important for separating the two clades in morphospace owing to the inclusion of the primary feathers in this unit. The differences found here indicate ecological separation based on differences in size, locomotory features and feeding adaptations. Thus, instead of one group displacing the other, birds and pterosaurs appear to have adopted distinctive ecological strategies throughout their period of coexistence.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20171556
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1865
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2017


  • functional morphology
  • Mesozoic birds
  • pterosaurs
  • ecological separation
  • limb bones
  • jaw


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