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The type specimen of the animal now known as Pterodactylus antiquus was the first pterosaur fossil ever to be identified. The first Pterodactylus specimen was described by the Italian scientist Cosimo Alessandro Collini in 1784.
Pterodactylus is known from over 30 fossil specimens, and though most belong to juveniles, many preserve complete skeletons. Pterodactylus antiquus was a relatively small pterosaur, with an estimated adult wingspan of about 1.04 meters (3 ft 5 in), based on the only known adult specimen, which is represented by an isolated skull. Aerodactylus if this genus is truly valid.
The skulls of adult Pterodactylus were long and thin, with about 90 narrow and conical teeth. The teeth extended back from the tips of both jaws, and became smaller farther away from the jaw tips, this was unlike the ones seen in most relatives, where teeth were absent in the upper jaw tip, and were relatively uniform in size. The teeth of Pterodactylus also extended farther back into the jaw compared to close relatives, and some were present below the front of the nasoantorbital fenestra, which is the largest opening in the skull. Another autapomorphy that Pterodactylus has is that the skull and jaws were straight, which are unlike the upwardly curved jaws seen in the related ctenochasmatids.
Pterodactylus, like related pterosaurs, had a crest on its skull composed mainly of soft tissues. In adult Pterodactylus, this crest extended between the back edge of the antorbital fenestra and the back of the skull. In at least one specimen, the crest had a short bony base, also seen in related pterosaurs like Germanodactylus. Solid crests have only been found on large, fully adult specimens of Pterodactylus, indicating that this was a display structure that became larger and more well developed as individuals reached maturity. Two specimens of P. antiquus (the holotype specimen BSP AS I 739 and the incomplete skull BMMS 7, the largest known skull of P. antiquus) have a low bony crest on their skulls.
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