The genus Pterodactylus has been known to science since 1784 when it was described by Italian scientist Cosimo Alessandro Collini. At the time this creature's identity was uncertain, with Collini classifying Pterodactylus as an unknown marine animal. This Bavarian fossil, uncovered just four years earlier, is among the best-preserved and best-known of all pterosaur holotype fossils.
Since then, 30 fossils were uncovered, nearly all of them from the Late Jurassic Solnhofen Formation in Bavaria. This means that the animal is known from both adult and juvenile specimens and we can reconstruct its lifestyle with relative confidence. The creature is known from two age and size classes: First year and second year. The first year class specimens are distinguished from the second by fewer teeth and smaller skulls than the others.
Pterodactylus' growth patterns are also known, with the animal having grown continuously throughout its lifetime, more like a crocodilian than a bird. Studies of the pterosaur's scleral rings show that it was a diurnal animal, hunting for its food during the day. Research on the scleral rings of nearly all the Solnhofen pterosaurs reveal that they were somewhat like marine birds in their lifestyles and daily activity patterns. Some others like Rhamphorhynchus and Ctenochasma were likely nocturnal. It was also thought to be a hunter of small marine animals, like little invertebrates and fish.
While the creature's physiology and classification are now known, it took a while for the 18th-Century scientists to classify it. It was German scientist Johann Hermann who realized that Pterodactylus' lengthy wing fingers supported something made of skin, a wing perhaps. In 1800, he restored the animal with a bat-like wing membrane, even adding fur down the creature's body. It was the first-ever life reconstruction of a pterosaur to be published.
It was Baron Georges Cuvier in 1809 who named the fossil, calling it the "Ptero-Dactyle." Finally, in 1815 it was amended to Pterodactylus antiquus and this became the type species of the genus. Another species was named somewhat later, the somewhat disputed Pterodactylus kochi. In time though, the genus would become a huge taxonomic wastebasket of nearly every other Solnhofen pterosaur.
Genera as varied and far apart as Ctenochasma, Germanodactylus, Ardeadactylus, Aurorazhdarcho and Aerodactylus were once part of this genus, only to be separated later. In terms of its classification today, Pterodactylus has altered a great deal physically over the last 200 years, with the discovery of skin imprints and even collagen fibers and the remnants of muscle. We thus now restore Pterodactylus antiquus with a small, smooth and thin crest on its head as per Chris Bennett's research in 2013. In terms of its family, it is somewhat close to Ctenochasma, being a part of the Ctenochasmatoidea.