Saturday, 2 October 2010

Parapsicephalus purdoni

I recently received an E-mail from Grant McKee regarding this interesting specimen, but was unable to reply since his Mail Server at was not accepting unauthorised mail (550 must be authenticated).
 Parapsicephalus purdoni cast in the Natural History Museum, London, photographed in 1984.

The original specimen was found in the Alum Shales at Lofthouse near Whitby in about1881 by the Rev. D.W. Purdon after whom it is named. The specimen was described in 1888 by E.T. Newton being originally designated Scaphognathus purdoni.The original fossil is now in the British Geological Survey at Keyworth, Notts.

Parapsicephalus purdoni skull photographed in 1986

This skull has a historical importance as it was the first pterosaur fossil to show a brain cast.  The original specimen was reproduced in cast form and the casts were distributed to key museums.  The specimen had one side of the cranial bones removed to expose the brain cast, showing the structure of the pterosaurian brain revealing the size of the main structures.

The skull form Altdorf - Bavaria 1994

A second skull from the Epsilon Lias of Bavaria was discovered in 1994 and this specimen which is unpublished shows close conformity with the Whitby specimen.

Newton  E.T., 1888. On the skull, brain, and auditory organ of a new species of pterosaurian (Scaphognathus purdoni) from the Upper Lias near Whitby, Yorkshire. Philospophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, B 179:503-537

von Arthaber  G., 1919. Studien über Flugsaurier auf Grund der Bearbeitung des Wiener exemplars von Dorygnathus banthensis Theod Sp., Denkschriften der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Klasse 97:391-464

Unwin  D. M., 2003. On the phylogeny and evolutionary history of pterosaurs, In: Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs, edited by Buffetaut, E., and Mazin, J.-M., Geological Society Special Publication, n. 217, p. 139-190

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Visting Lyme Regis

A recent trip to Lyme Regis allowed me to see the improvements to the Philpot Museum, now the Lyme Regis Museum.  For some time now the museum has had a Curator, which has been a distinct advantage.  The arches have been incorporated into the museum building and the displays have been updated and improved to fit in with the heritage status of the Jurassic Coast.
The Jurassic fossils are displayed in the downstairs main gallery and in the cabinets there is a small local slab with the premaxilla and teeth of the upper jaw of Dimorphodon macronyx - originally labelled Pterodactyle.
This is a fine specimen and I originally photographed it in September 1980 when John Fowles was Hon. Curator of the museum.  This specimen was collected by James Harrison - the original Mary Anning finds are in the Natural History Museum, London.
Much more impressive is a drawing by Joseph Anning (Mary's brother) which is made using reconstituted belemnite ink from specimens collected at the undercliff at Lyme.  As far as I am aware, this is the only drawing of a pterosaur fossil that has been rendered in this way and it is unique.  It is worth seeing before the colour fades, though fossil belemnite ink is quite stable compared to other mediums of art.
Just a short trip up the coast to Charmouth and there is the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.  West Bay at Bridport has the Jurassic Pier where you can look across to the cliffs of the coast.  There is a lot to see and do on this coast.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Ornithocheirus wing

Ornithocheirus is well documented in the UK collections, but many of the remains are fragmentary, consisting of partial bones and joint associations. I thought it would be interesting to use some of the specimens to compile a model of a whole wing.  All of the bone ends are preserved and in some cases the lengths of the bones are clear, other bone lengths can be extrapolated.
The main stumbling blocks are identifying the ends of wing phalanges 2 and 3, and scaling the bones to the same sized individual.  The pteroid bone is also an issue since it is seldom preserved or identified in fragmentary remains.  This wing is an estimation for this exercise, based largely on O. sedgwicki remains;
Assembled, this wing has a length of 90cm, giving the whole pterosaur a wingspan of about 2m.  This is a good medium size pterosaur, though many Ornithocheirids were much bigger than this. Coloborhynchus piscator would have had a wingspan of about 4m, which is more typical of the larger Ornithocheirids.

When the wing is examined as a whole it is quite apparent that the joints would have had a limited range of movement, being unable to fold completely.  This is typical of the larger pterosaurs indicating that they would have been very efficient on the wing, but very awkward on the ground.  Pneumatic foramen are observed in all of the main wing bones showing that in life they would have been filled with air, making the wing a very light structure.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Pterosaurs and Cryptozoology

For a century, almost as long as pterosaurs have been in the popular domain, people have occasionally reported sightings of live animals.  They are usually reported by word of mouth and there seems to be little, if any, supporting evidence.  I am a doubter myself, as I see two trends at work here.  Firstly, the reports of sightings have been coloured with the changes in scientific thinking about pterosaur anatomy over the years.  Secondly, most of the sightings occur in areas where UFO sightings are common.  Another concern of mine is that I cannot find a sighting reported by a biologist or a palaeontologist with detailed knowledge.
Some reports are obviously misguided - examples like frigate birds seen by tourists and storks seen in dim light.  There have also been a number of clever or crude hoaxes which have been disproved.  However, there are some reports that cannot be resolved due to lack of evidence.
Kongamato - This is a creature reported from East Africa by lake fishermen.  The name roughly translates as "attacker of boats" The culprit could be a long necked species of stork, but with no firm evidence, this legend cannot be verified.
Ropen - Reported from the Malaysian islands and New Guinea, this large flying creature is reputed to be a very large long tailed pterosaur.  Sightings have not been confirmed.  There are also local island names such as Seclo-bali, Duwas and Kor. Occasionally there are stories about the creature being bio-luminescent, though this appears to be less common than the long tailed flying creature that is seen at dusk.
The basic science would suggest that these sightings are misguided.  The last evidence of pterosaurs comes from 64 million years ago as fossil bones.  At the time of the large pterosaurs the atmospheric oxygen level was about 4% higher that it is today which would make such a large flying creature a physical improbability in the modern day atmosphere.  It is also the case that the long tailed pterosaurs show no fossil evidence in the Upper Cretaceous Era.  Such a creature would be unsafe around forested areas as it would risk damaging its wings. It would most likely rest and nest in a flat open area as well as having a large ranging pattern of flight to find food and mates.  Such a population would not be viable for any length of time without at least a few dozen breeding individuals which would be clearly visible and easy to find with modern technology.
Modern day pterosaurs would be much easier to find than Big Foot, Yeti or the Loch Ness monster as they would need to fly in the open to move between feeding sites.  Clearly, chasing smoke can be fun for some enthusiasts.  I would be delighted if someone found a modern day pterosaur, but I am not going to join the search myself.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Australian Pterosaurs

Australia is a vast continent with a relatively small population.  It was in 1980 that the first pterosaur remains were recorded and published in Nature.  They included a scapulo-coracoid of an unusual type that had a strut at the back of the articular joint.  There are some similarities with pteranodontid specimens, but essentially it is an unknown species that has not been seen anywhere else.
 The model in the photograph gives an impression of the overall shape.  The original specimen QM-F10612 From the Flaggy Limestones of the Toolebuc Formation about 13km from Hamilton Hotel is now in the Queensland Museum.  About 500m away, two other specimens of pterosaur were discovered.  QM-F10613 a fused mandible with 5 pairs of alvioli and QM-F10614 a single vertebra.  It is not known if they represent the same pterosaur.
In the New Zealand Geological Survey collection is NZGS CD467 collected from Mangahouanga Stream, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.  This is a distal Ulna fragment from an azdarchid pterosaur.  It is considered to be similar to Arambourgiania though the detail suggests a different type of pterosaur.

Another specimen is of a Mid-jaw fragment from the Allaru Mudstone of Queensland, Australia. This specimen is considered to show a resemblance to Anhanguera santanae but like most of the Australian material it has unique features which may well set it apart from the rest of the world.

A few additional pterosaur fragments indicate that Australia was colonised by pterosaurs from the major Groups during the Cretaceous.  It is also likely that the pterosaur fauna of the Jurassic was specific to the Australian continent, but with so few finds it is not possible to make sensible conclusions.  Many of the continents show this pattern of finds over much of their geological history.  It is only at specific sites that the fine pterosaur fossils tend to be found, where preservation is very good.  As there has not been such a site discovered in Australia, the finds tend to be representative of the normal background evidence for the fossil record.

  • Molnar, R. E., Thulborn, R. A., 1980 First Pterosaur from Australia, Nature, London, Vol.288, Pp.361-363
  • Molnar, R. E. 1987 A Pterosaur pelvis from western Queensland, Australia, Alcheringa, 11, 87-94 ISSN 0311 5518
  • Wiffen, J., Molnar, R. E., 1988 First pterosaur from New Zealand. Alcheringa 12, 53–59.
  • Molnar R. E., 1998. Anhanguera sp. P. 82. In Tomida, Y. (ed.) Dinosaurs of Gondwana. (Yomiuri Shimbun: Tokyo) (in Japanese)
  • Molnar, R.E., and Thulborn, R.A., 2007. An incomplete pterosaur skull from the Cretaceus of north-central Queensland, Australia. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):461-470. 
  • Fletcher, T. L., Salisbury S. W. and Cook, A. G, 2007. New pterosaur fossils from the Early Cretaceous (Aptian-Albian) of western Queensland, Australia. In: Warren, A., Geological Society of Australia Abstracts No. 85. 11th Conference on Australian Vertebrate Evolution, Palaeontology and Systematics, 2007, Melbourne, Australia, (26-26). April, 2007.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Pterosaurs: Dragons of the Air

Friday 25 June 2010, 10:00am - Sunday 4 July 2010, 20:30pm

The Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London is just a short walk from Covent Garden or Westminster and it is within easy access of Waterloo, Charring Cross and Embankment Stations. In late June it is to become home to some of the largest pterosaurs in the UK.
The University of Portsmouth, supported by the Royal Society are participating in the London Summer Science Festival. This exhibition celebrates the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. The project involves making life size models of pterosaurs and standing them outside the Royal Festival Hall. Some of the models will be suspended in flying poses and others will be on the ground. Mark Witton is the host of this event and his team are working hard to meet the deadline with some well developed modelling techniques.
The frames for the large models have been engineered on the Isle of Wight by Hoverworks and the main structures are carved from Styrofoam. The construction has been filmed by the BBC at different stages of the work, so it seems that there will be a program in the future to document this rather gigantic modelling project. For anyone who is unsure of the size of these large flying creatures, this exhibition will be a real eye-opener. The exhibits include the largest ground standing model of a pterosaur ever exhibited. The only thing that has come close to this is a composite picture that Matt Wedell produced in 2006 which was updated in June 2008 to include a scale drawing of Mark Witton's Hertzagopteryx image. Good old Photoshop!

Images credited to the University of Portsmouth and the BBC.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Sculpting pterosaur bones

Bruce Mohn is a palaeo-artist who has produces fine models of dinosaurs and other prehistoric species, including Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus. Many of his works are in museums and I admire his skill and accuracy in portraying these subjects. Above is one of his pictures showing some of the bones of his Rhamphorhynchus model during development.
I thought it would be a good idea to have a go and produce a model of my own. Bruce modelled much of his Rhamphorhynchus bones on R. gemmingi. I thought it would be fun to have a go at another species, R. longimanus (Just because I have lots of photographs).
Having made a basic modelling kit from bits of driftwood and an ice-cream lolly stick, I went out and purchased some modelling clay. The best option seemed a plastic clay which can be baked hard when shaped. There are several types on the market - Fimo is easy to work, but contracts a little when baked. Sculpey requires a bit more skill to work, but has the advantage of retaining its size when baked. It can also be re-baked several times and sanded or carved when set. There are also several types of air dry clay, but you need to be very good to complete a model in one go. I chose Sculpey modelling clay.
The first stage in the operation is to take a small piece of clay and kneed it between your fingers until it is soft. Shape a blank (A) which is the shape you need, but simple in form. Bake at 125°C for 20 minutes (30 minutes for big bits) and cool. The blank shape can be carved and built up using more clay to form the basic shape of the bone (B). This can then be baked again to harden the added detail. Carving, sanding, building up and baking can be done as many times as necessary. The final bake needs to be at 130°C for 30 minutes. If you go any hotter, the structure of the clay will blow out and release gas.
 I was quite please with the final trial model of the humerus. It just needs a little dressing and painting to make a passable display specimen. The quality of my first piece of work does not compare with the professional finish on Bruce's work, but everyone starts as a novice, it can only get better with time.

The Sculpey clay also works well in fairly flat silicon moulds. I have reproduced castings of trilobite specimens using this medium with very good results.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Pterosauria

Dave Martill, David Unwin and Robert Loveridge are working on a definitive publication on the order Pterosauria. The text has a significant number of contributions from the leading workers in the field and has a forward by Peter Wellnhofer. It is planned for publication by Cambridge University Press in December 2010 and this looks like a significant "must have" for anyone who is serious about fossil pterosaurs. The pre-order UK price is £80 sterling, though this is projected to increase after publication.
There have been some significant discoveries since Peter Wellnhofer wrote The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs (published in 1991) and this new text should address the later developments in a clear and informed way. Its publication is eagerly awaited.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

New Species Pages

Having been dissatisfied with the way The Pterosaur Database represented the families and species of pterosaurs, I have just completed a re-structuring of the web pages. This is a job in progress, but it should be a little easier to find things. Previously, the pterosaurs were arranged and listed by geological age. This format is still available, but now they are also listed by classification as family groups. This includes time lines for each family extent.
The taxonomic list is based loosely on David Unwins classification, with a few alterations to accommodate some of the more recent ideas. It is not possible to please everyone when a classification structure is produced, and that is why I did not do this before. In reality, the analysis of characteristics that leads to a taxonomic structure is quite fluid. Structures may change over time, or be interpreted differently by different researchers, so these pages need to be viewed as useful, but not exclusive.
The geological age listing is a little more helpful as I have included continental maps to give an idea of the land masses at different tectonic ages.

At a later date, I intend to update individual pterosaur species pages and endevour to obtain photographs of fossils to add to the text only pages. I would also like to add a world distribution map for each family, but that will take a little more time.

Criticism and recommendations are welcome. If anyone wants to send in photographs, they will be appreciated and credited accordingly.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Stonesfield Slate

The Stonesfield Slate is an interesting deposit which contains quite a lot of fragmentary pterosaur remains. It is one of the few Middle Jurassic deposits in the UK that has yielded pterosaur remains. The pterosaurs of the Middle Jurassic are poorly represented worldwide, so this is an important source of information on the species that were around at that time. It is clear that this age had a very rich pterosaur fauna, as a large number of species are represented by bone fragments, some of which are specific to this time.

One such genus is Rhamphocephalus, which is known from a few jaw, tooth and wing bone remains. It is uncertain that the jaws and wing bones are from the same species, so they are assigned differently.
Rhamphocephalus depresirostris is known from a distal lower jaw fragment and a few isolated teeth. The jaw is unlike any other pterosaur. Two dissociated wing bones are also assigned to this species. Another few wing bones are assigned to Rhamphocephalus bucklandi along with another different jaw fragment.
A further specimen of an upper skull bone is assigned as Rhamphocephalus prestwichi.
There are many remains from the Stonesfield Slate, including individual bones from Dimorphodon, Anurognathus, Pterodactylus and other species.

Huxley T. H., 1859, On Rhamphorhynchus bucklandi, a Pterosaurian from the Stonesfield Slate, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 15: 658, London.

Seeley H.G. 1879, On Rhamphocephalus prestwichi, Seeley, an Ornithosaurian from the Stonesfield Slate of Kineton. Quart. J. Geol. Soc. 36: 27-30

Lydekker R., 1888, Catalogue of the fossil Reptilia and Amphibia in the British Museum (Natural History). I. London, pp. 2–42.

Whalley G., 2000, Pterosaurs of the English Middle Jurassic, Thesis submission, School of Earth, Environmental and Physical Sciences, Portsmouth University, BSc (Hons) in Palaeobiology and Evolution.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Teeth Revealed

Identifying pterosaur teeth is not easy, especially from photographic evidence. The five teeth below were extracted from my own fossil collection to illustrate the difficulty in knowing that you have a pterosaur fossil tooth. They are all authenticated specimens.

  1. Resin cast of a tooth from Syroccopteryx moroccensis - pterosaur
  2. Geosaurid Crocodile tooth from the Kem-Kem formation, Morocco - non-pterosaur
  3. Steniosaurus tooth collected from the Oxford Clay, UK. - non-pterosaur
  4. Fish tooth, Enchodus sp. from the USA - non-pterosaur
  5. Plesiosaur tooth from the Oxford Clay, UK - non-pterosaur
Many fossil species show a variation in tooth structure throughout the jaw. In the case of 3 - the tooth from the crocodile Steniosaurus durobreviensis, most of the teeth show little resemblance to pterosaur teeth, but in this case, a few broken teeth from the mid jaw could easily be confused if seen in isolation. I used to live near to the quarry where this specimen was found.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Tooth Quiz

Following on from my last post, I thought it would be interesting to give readers a chance to look at some teeth pictures. This should test even the most experienced eye as it is always difficult to examine teeth from photographs. The photo below is of some of the teeth in my own collection of fossils. Tooth 1 is 3.5 cm long for scale.
Question:- which teeth are pterosaur and which teeth are non-pterosaur?

You may even like to suggest a family or species for each tooth. Answers will follow in a future post.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Pterosaur Teeth

I am frequently asked to identify pterosaur teeth. Sadly, in most cases, the teeth turn out to be non-pterosaur. Many are of fish like Enchodus sp., the sabre toothed herring. These teeth are common and can easily be passed off by dealers as pterosaur teeth to increase profit. Many dealers will also obtain pterosaur teeth from suppliers without knowing that they have been duped.

This is my identification check list - most pterosaur teeth will exhibit these features.
  1. Evenly curved and consistently tapering tooth.
  2. Wear bevel at the top smooth with no abrasions.
  3. Enamel cap at the crown.
  4. Fine striations may be present towards the base of the tooth.
  5. Open root.
Some larger pterosaur teeth may also show an oval shaped wear patch half way down the tooth where it has rubbed on the side of the opposing tooth when the jaw was closed.
If the tooth does not conform to this type, then the only sure way to know that it is a pterosaur tooth is for it to be fixed within a fragment of fossil jaw bone where the bone structure can be determined.
Most pterosaur teeth are evenly oval in cross section and generally of smooth appearance. There are some exceptions, like the tricuspate teeth of the very early pterosaur species. Specialist feeders like Dsungeripterus and Pterosdaustro, but the shapes of these exceptional teeth are well documented.
The moral of this post is - if you are buying an isolated pterosaur tooth, expect it to be non-pterosaur unless it has provenance and an expert opinion attached. It is also unwise to buy a fossil unless you know the locality, sediment and age of the site that it came from.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Rhamphorhynchus Wings

In 1882 Carl Zittel described a fossil pterosaur wing with the membrane preserved. This remarkable find was the highlight of that year and the Zittel wing became a very famous fossil. Casts were distributed to all of the main national museums and by 1883 most researchers and interested students of fossils had seen the wing.
In 1880, a fine fossil of Rhamphorhynchus was found in the Solenhofen Shales. The work was published in 1882 and clearly showed the wing membranes and tail fin. This specimen was originally named Rhamphorhynchus phyllurus (now Rh. muensteri) and it was sold to the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, USA. As with the Zittel specimen, casts were taken and distributed to National Museums.
Since the original finds of pterosaurs with wing membranes preserved, There have been many examples from the Lithographic Shales in Bavaria. The specimen above is in the Humboldt University Museum in Berlin.
Perhaps the best specimen of a Rhamphorhynchus with wing membrane preserved is the 'Dark Wing' specimen which is sometimes called the 'Tischlinger' specimen. This is a reflection of the work of Helmut Tischlinger who produced an amazing set of ultra-violet photographic images of this fossil to enable more detail of the wing to be observed.

These and other fossils enabled the wing structure to be studied in detail, from the fibres that run across the cord of the wing to the different layers of tissue within the wing membrane. As a result, there is a high level of understanding about the wing membrane structure of these and other pterosaurs.

von Zittel, K. A. 1882 Über Flugsaurier aus dem lithographischen Schiefer Bayerns. Paläontographica 29, 47–80 & pls 10–13.

Padian K & Rayner J M V; 1993, Structural fibres of the pterosaur wing: anatomy and aerodynamics. Naturwissenschaften 80: 361-364.

Martill D M and Unwin D M; 1989, Exceptionally well preserved pterosaur wing membrane from the Cretaceous of Brazil, Nature, 340:138-140

Tischlinger, H. and Frey, E. 2002. Ein Rhamphorhynchus (Pterosauria, Reptilia) mit ungewöhnlicher Flughauterhaltung aus dem Solnhofener Plattenkalk. Archaeopteryx, 20, 1-20.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Highlights of 2009

There have been some remarkable finds published in 2009. Something of a stepping stone in the understanding of pterosaur evolution.

1. Changchengopterus pani was found in Upper Jurassic rocks in China. It is a basal, non-pterodactyloid pterosaur. Basal simply means a more primitive form of pterosaur with characteristics of much earlier species.

2. Darwinopterus modularis is a Middle Jurassic pterosaur with an interesting combination of Rhamphorhynchoid and Pterodactyloid features. A whole new branch of classification had to be devised to accommodate this fossil between the Rhamphorhynchoids and Pterodactyloids. This is a good example of what Darwin meant when he developed the idea of modular evolution. Different characteristics developing at different times within a family of animals.

3. Wukangopterus lii is another Upper Jurassic Rhamphorhynchoid from China. It has a long toothed skull and shows more primitive features than Rhamphorhynchus.

4. Another Pterosaur track way has also been published. Pteraichnus nipponensis is a distinct and new type of pterosaur track way from the Lower Cretaceous. It was originally discovered in 1990 at Kiladani Dinosaur Quarry in Japan and it has just been published. This paper makes the point that most Cretaceous pterosaurs are very large species, but this and other track ways were made by smaller pterosaur species. There must be many fossils out there still to find.

There are a number of other pterosaur finds which are being worked upon at present and some of them are remarkable fossils. Hopefully they will be published soon, so that they can enter the scientific discussions and shed new light on the development of this interesting group of ancient fossil animals.

Happy New Year.

  1. Lü, J. 2009. A new non-pterodactyloid pterosaur from Qinglong County, Hebei Province of China. Acta Geologica Sinica (English Edition), 83(2): 189-199.

  2. Lü J. Unwin D. M., Jin X., Liu Y. and Ji Q., 2009, Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published on line 14 Oct 2009.

  3. Wang X., Kellner A. W. A., Jiang S. and Meng X., 2009, An unusual long-tailed pterosaur with elongated neck from western Liaoning of China. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 81 (4):793–812.

  4. Lee, Y.-N., Azuma, Y., Lee, H.-J., Shibata, M., and Lü, J., 2009., The first pterosaurtrackways from japan. Cretaceous Research