Fall down mountains, just don't fall on me

    Newer Older

    For most men, bless us, everything is about size and quantity. Car engines, televisions, stereo wattage, houses (and associated drive space), computers, various dangly appendages... they’re all the same. If they’re bigger, more expensive or exist in greater quantity, they’re far better than their diminutive alternative. Being the simple, simple things that we are, men posture and flaunt their various oversize appendages to demonstrate their dominance over subservient men and impress the ladies. Perhaps the only exception to this is the gee-whizz world of gadgets and technology: mobile phones, MP3 players and that kind of thing. Here, smaller is better, right to the point where you can’t dial a phone number even with your pinkie finger without smooshing the entire dialling pad or loose your iPod through the seams of your trouser pocket. But hey, who cares: it’s smaller than the brick of a phone owned by Derek, who could only loose his should it fall into a rice sieve. Go figure.

    We’re quite open-minded in the world of palaeontology, however, and we flaunt both ends of the size spectrum to harvest all the moneys, honeys and, er, bunnies that fill the life of a typical palaeontologist. Still, for all the neatness of tiny little fossils, nothing grabs headlines more than ‘biggest ever discovered’. Unsurprisingly, pterosaur researchers are just the same and willing to big-up any large flying reptiles they may find. I’ve spent much of the last few weeks piecing together the history of this (quite literal, in one view) bigging-up of pterosaurs, documenting the discovery of the largest pterosaurs known from 1871 until today (to clarify the specificity of that date, Dave Martill, my PhD supervisor, has the slightly more involved job of piecing together the pterosaur record-breakers from 1784 until 1870). For once, this was not research conducted as part of a futile effort to finish my PhD, but instead for a presentation: the results of this bit of historical research are to be published, in poster form, at the Dinosaurs - A Historical Perpsective meeting being held in London next week (for those living in the future, next week is the 12 – 16 of May, 2008). Unfortunately, due to desperate finances, I won’t be attending the meeting in full, but will be around to collect people’s coats on their way in on the Tuesday morning.

    So, what’s the story with these giant pterosaurs, then? Well, prior to the 1870s, the biggest pterosaurs were not that magnificent, perhaps only 4 m or so across the wings, and therefore not much bigger than the largest modern birds. What’s more, they were only known from the most diminutive of fragments from deposits like the Cambridge Greensand of England, where the pterosaur fossils look like they’ve been chewed up and spat out by a rhinoceros with acidic saliva. Complete pterosaurs were known, of course, but only comparatively small critters like Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus from German deposits that still, to this date, have yet to yield a real pterosaur giant. Hence, it appears that Europe was not the best place to look for giant pterosaurs. Unsurprisingly, it was the USA, land of Supersized fast-food, Supersized cars and Supersize waistlines, that provided the worlds’ first truly enormous pterosaur. Its discoverer was one Othniel Marsh, the palaeontologist famous for his rivalry with Edward Cope. Funnily enough, Marsh championed his discoveries American pterosaurs as the first of their kind, but Cope may have beat him to it by several years (a story for another night, perhaps). Marsh and his expedition found the first remains of these giants in the Niobrara Chalk of Kansas, a deposit laid down in the continental seaway that bisected North America in the Late Cretaceous. Marsh’s initial discoveries (1871, chronology fans) were fragmentary, but one bone – a bit of wing metacarpal (metacarpals, for those who don’t know, are the long bones that connect your fingers to your wrist: each pterosaur forelimb has one particularly large metacarpal to articulate with their massive wing fingers) – hinted at a form with a 6.1 m (20 ft wingspan). This is pretty damn big, being almost 50 per cent longer than a large family car. The next year saw Marsh’s teams find a complete wing that confirmed Marsh’s wingspan estimate and, more astonishingly, reveal even bigger pterosaurs with 6.7 m wingspans. But what were these winged leviathans? Marsh initially dumped these remains in the genus Pterodactylus in 1872, noting their similarity to this European animal including the shape of their teeth. Marsh had this a little around his neck, however: in 1876, Marsh described newly-discovered skull material of these forms that revealed they had no teeth at all. Like, anywhere. They were, as we say, edentulous. Presumably, Marsh was describing fish, bird or marine reptile teeth associated with the pterosaur remains, because, even in the 140 years since Marsh’s work on Niobrara pterosaurs, there’s not one tooth known from any Niobrara pterosaur. Anywho, the lack of teeth in the Niobrara remains gave Marsh enough taxonomic clout to name a new genus, Pteranodon in 1876, and new remains described in the same year gave Marsh his largest ever Pteranodon wingspan estimate, 7.6 m. It was suggested in 1966 that even larger, 10 m span Pteranodon once existed, but Marsh’s estimates are probably more accurate. We’ve now got something like 1100 specimens of this critter, Pteranodon is, without a shadow of doubt, the best known of all giant pterosaurs.

    Thing is, while Pteranodon is the best known giant pterosaur and had a wingspan certainly not worth sneezing at, it was most certainly not the biggest pterosaur. The first hints of even larger animals were found but not recognised by C. A. Arambourg in the late 1930s or early 1940s: this Jordanian material, thought by Arambourg to be a wing metacarpal, gave a wingspan of 7 m and was named Titanopteryx in 1959. Arambourg’s pterosaur was not really understood properly until the 1970s, when Douglas Lawson found a truly gigantic pterosaur remains in Late Cretaceous deposits of Texas. Several kilometres away, a bunch of smaller, but considerably more complete pterosaurs were found that bore remarkable similarity to what Times Magazine dubbed ‘Lawson’s Monster’. Lawson named them all Quetzalcoatlus in 1975 and estimated that the wingspan of the biggest was anywhere between 11 and 20 m: at very least, that’s 30 per cent larger than the biggest Pteranodon. Quetzalcoatlus then fell into the hands of Wann Langston Jr., who favoured the lower wingspan estimate In 1981 based on comparisons with the relatively small (6 m span) Quetzalcoatlus and biomechanical issues acting on 20 m span pterosaur wings.

    Now, Quetzalcoatlus proved a key role in unlocking the secrets of Arambourg’s Titanopteryx. The smaller Quetzalcoatlus skeletons revealed that this taxon had an enormously elongate neck comprised of relatively few vertebrae, and the longest of the neck bones was a dead-ringer for the Titanopteryx ‘wing metacarpal’. Lawson realised this in 1975 and, with the 1984 discovery of another pterosaur with an absurdly proportioned neck in Uzbekistan (not a giant, mind), it dawned on pterosaurologists that a whole bunch of these fellows once existed. L. Nessov appropriately named this group Azhdarchinae in the same year, basing the name on the Uzbek word for ‘dragon’ (we’ve now raised the taxonomic rank of these guys to Azhdarchidae, by the way. That’s yet another story, however). Because it soon became apparent that the name Titanopteryx had already been applied to a tiny, tiny fly, Nessov, along with A. Jarkov renamed Titanopteryx as Arambourgiania in 1989, and seven years later, Eberhard ‘Dino’ Frey and my PhD supervisor re-described the vertebra and the size of the animal it represented. With refreshingly frank admittance of their inability to resist the urge to scale-up Arambourgiania despite having next-to-no-remains, Frey and Martill estimated a whopping 11-13 m wingspan for this animal, possibly dwarfing Quetzalcoatlus by 2 m.

    Even bigger azhdarchids were to come, however. In 2002, E. Buffetaut and friends revealed yet-another poorly-known but clearly gigantic azhdarchid to the world: Hatzegopteryx. This animal, from Late Cretaceous deposits of Transylvania, is only represented by scrappy skull and limb material, but is thought to have spanned at least 12 m and, by my estimation, stands about 3 m tall at the shoulder. Thing is, while the remains of Quetzalcoatlus and Arambourgiania hint at relatively slender, lithe creatures, Hatzegopteryx is built like the proverbial fired-clay outbuilding. What little is known of its jaw is massively constructed and indicates a skull width of at least 50 cm. That’s half a metre. I’m barely 50 cm across my shoulders: Hatzegopteryx could probably swallow me, a fully grown, 23-year old man, whole. If we scaled this up to the skull proportions of the small Quetzalcoatlus, we’d have a skull 5 m long. Now, because skulls of this size are typically reserved for monstrous marine reptiles or filter-feeding whales, it’s thought that these estimates may be a bit wrong. However, even more conservative estimates of 2.5 m give Hatzegopteryx one of the longest skulls of any land-based animal, and certainly the largest of any flier. It also bears thought that the record holders for the longest skulls of land animals, the elaborately frilled horned-dinosaurs, are cheating to get their place in the record books by having much of their skull length occupied by accessory frill. The length of the Hatzegopteryx skull is almost entirely jaw, however, making it more comparable with the long-jawed skulls of big predatory dinosaurs like Giganotosaurus and Spinosaurus. Seeing as the latter has a skull of around 1.8 m length, it appears that a twiglet-boned, lanky pterosaur had longer jaws than any dinosaur. Who’d have thought it?

    Alas, the rest of Hatzegopteryx is virtually unknown. We have the occipital region (the part of the skull that connects with the neck), which is deeply-sculpted for anchoring powerful neck-elevating ligaments and muscles. The humerus is poorly preserved but comparatively more robust than that of the giant Quetzalcoatlus. That’s about it, but the bottom line is clear: Hatzegopteryx was absolutely enormous and it remains the largest pterosaur we know of. In fact, I have it on good authority that, based on our current understanding of pterosaur biomechanics, the pterosaur skeleton would have to be dramatically altered to facilitate much larger forms. Despite this, there were rumblings in 2005, however, of an even larger pterosaur being found. Y’know: something in the 20-25 m range. Unfortunately, this beastie was mentioned to the public well before it should’ve been: the alleged remains of this creature have since proven to be non-pterosaurian and several pterosaurologists (some of whom I know quite well – but no names mentioned) retire sheepishly at its mere mention. For the less squeamish, Cameron McCormick has crafted a diagram and blog post discussing this most monstrously unreal pterosaur.

    So, there you have it: highlights of the history of giant pterosaurs in 1,780 words. There’s a whole lot more to go with this stuff: giant Jurassic pterosaurs, giant pterosaurs in the Lower Cretaceous, giant pterosaur footprints, giant palaeontologists vs. giant aeronautical engineers on the mechanical constraints facing a giant pterosaur… if only there was a giant amount of time to tell it all (dy’see what I did there?). For the moment, you’ll have to be content with the image accompanying these words: it depicts the 1.75 m tall author, somewhat shaggier than his last comparison with a giant pterosaur, being dwarfed by the mighty Pteranodon (on the right) and the monumentally-sized Hatzegopteryx on the left. Note that Pteranodon, for all this talk of being much smaller than the largest azhdarchids, is no midget itself. No giraffe this time – it was eaten by Hatzegopteryx. Oh, that reminds me: big things - big, Earthshaking, city-levelling things - are about to happen in the world of azhdarchid palaeobiology. What’s that, you ask? Well, that would be telling. Come back soon, dear friends, and all will be revealed…

    UPDATE (12/05/08): As is customary with these things, the ever prompt Dr. Naish has written a review of the aforementioned conference, which you can find here. It even has a daft pictures of me and Darren, plus a picture of the poster that kick started this whole essay off. Now that's value for money, especially when you don't have to pay a penny to see it.

    UPDATE (21/05/08): Of course, giant pterosaurs are all very impressive, but the crazy guys at Sauropod Vertebrae: Picture of the Week (or SV:POW! to those on the scene) have just graphically pitched the planet's most enormous animals against each other: sauropod dinosaurs vs. whales. Who wins? Head here to find out.

    (While you're over there, don't forget that their animals of choice can't fly: pterosaurs are far cooler [maybe drop a comment or two to point this out to them]. And I'm much better looking than either Matt Wedel or Mike Taylor: see for yourself.)

    Kaptain Kobold, sandrino, mojosaurus, and 42 other people added this photo to their favorites.

    View 20 more comments

    1. Mark Witton 70 months ago | reply

      Well, I obviously didn't draw the cage I was standing in to protect myself from those enormous jaws. You know, just to make me look more manly.

    2. Chair 68 months ago | reply

      Wow, fabulous illustration! And I thought entomo-artistry was obscure. :D

      Per your comments on the set page, I'm quite the opposite: I can do what I need to with paint, brushes and papery stuff but the digital scares me, leaving me to feel old and crotchety.

    3. Mark Witton 68 months ago | reply

      Ms. Chair (gee, that sounds so formal. Do you have a nickname I can use? Lounger? Stool? Pouffe?),

      Thanks very much for the nice words. Your insect illustrations are fantastic: I've spent all morning procratinating with them. I was particularly impressed with the dragonflies: I had to draw a fossil specimen for my PhD recently and the wing veination drove me nuts: I'm far too impatient to detail something as intricate as that.

      As for digital art, I don't think it's as far removed from genuine painting as you might think. I've started tinkering with 'genuine' media recently and found I've learnt a lot through digital painting. You know, what with the best order to lay colours down and all sorts. The best thing about digital painting, though, is that you can screw up and tinker constantly without ruining hours of work if something doesn't work out well. Computer crashes, however, are definitely a bummer.

    4. Chair 68 months ago | reply

      Heehee. Pouffe will suffice. :)

      And thank you for the kind words. Dragonflies have long been my favorites, it would be fabulous to see a few Meganeura buzzing around once in a while but perhaps it's best that they don't. I do have small children, after all.

      I expect that, at some point, I will try digital. It looks like fun.

    5. Neil Ryan 68 months ago | reply

      Hi Mark,

      I'll break my years-long "lurkery" as a fan, with a basic question.

      What's the basis of the head designs for your Quetz and Hatzegoptreryx? Don't get me wrong, I've no complaints; just really curious. Well, you know, given how with dinos, there's a relatively similar style w/ almost all artists.. but there are sooooo many iterations on Quetz head ornamentation.

      BTW, this hatzegopteryx reminds me of the Tyco Dino-Riders Quetzalcoatlus toy. The mohawk pterosaur king.

    6. Mark Witton 68 months ago | reply

      Hi Neil,

      Giant azhdarchid skulls aren't that well known: check out this to see the best material. Note that the back of the Quetzalcoatlus skull is virtully unknown: all we have is the cranium up to the orbit and a hint of a crest extending along the top of the nasoantorbital fenestra. As for the skull of Hatzegopteryx: see that ugly little thing in the top-left corner of the same image? That's one half of all the known skull material of that critter: the only other bit is a fragment of the jaw joint and palate. Hence, there is a lot of slop for palaeoartists to play with when it comes to giant azhdarchid skull restoration. Some skulls are just plain wrong, though: one source for images of Quetzalcoatlus fossils, Peter Wellnhofer's pterosaur encylclopedia, incorrectly labelled a fragmentary jaw tip as Quetzalcoatlus when, in reality, it's a distinct azhdarchid from the same locality. However, that hasn't stopped some palaeoartists from using it as a basis to restore Quetzalcoatlus.

      Hope that answers your question.

    7. Neil Ryan 68 months ago | reply

      Thanks for the reply!

      Though I really like your version (and they really look functional); 've been wondering what's the basis for the other version of Quetz reconstructions. I've noticed 2 major groups; "A", pointed jaw tip with a crest, and "B" blunt jaw tip with the knob reminiscent of a stunted pteranodon.

      Thanks to the link you gave though, atleast now I know that version A is the most accurate, relatively speaking of course.

      slaps self... hahaha, my bad. Got my answer from the same post. Thanks Mark!

    8. Mark Witton 68 months ago | reply

      I think your 'B' type is this sort of thing, right? If so, this is a restoration based on the incorrect assignment of the 'Other Javelina azhdarchid' jaws to Quetzalcoatlus.

    9. Neil Ryan 68 months ago | reply

      woah, exacta!

      so that was an extant (err, formerly extant? - I should've said "real") azhdarchid after all, but not quetz. Thanks for the info.

    10. v33b 64 months ago | reply

      Holy crap that thing is enormous!

    11. AL_ART 63 months ago | reply

      Amazing picture! instant fave.

    12. RARA AVIS IN TERRIS [deleted] 62 months ago | reply

      Hy, i'm watching a documentary about the evolution of flying animals on the History Channel and apparently they showed some of your drawings when talking about Quetzacoatlus, but it was too quick to tell which specific image were shown.

    13. onefamousdog 58 months ago | reply

      Hi, I'm an admin for a group called just cool pictures, and we'd love to have this added to the group!

    14. onefamousdog 58 months ago | reply

      Hi, I'm an admin for a group called a new world, and we'd love to have this added to the group!

    15. onefamousdog 58 months ago | reply

      Hi, I'm an admin for a group called soulful group, and we'd love to have this added to the group!

    16. Cristian Peter Marinescu-Ivan 56 months ago | reply

      Actually, Hatzegopteryx thambema was mostly discovered in the Romanian territories of today ["Haţeg basin wing", Haţeg being the paleo-site].
      Unusual for its period and location, Hatzegopteryx was one of the largest pterosaurs ever seen above the Ocean of Tethys, living around great islands [called today the Carpathian mountains, S-W]. Because of the close areas, the Romanian dinosaurs were practically forced to decrease in dimensions [theory of insular dwarfism]: Europasaurus holgeri, Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus etc.

      Best regards!

    17. Leccathu 56 months ago | reply

      Hello! I have been pondering over your images for some time and I have to say your renditions are most impressive! What I especially love is the amount of information and witty commentary on your images that enrich the experience and brain matter so much more with each entry. I very much enjoy your work.

      I was looking at your renditions of resting/standing pterosaurs/azhdarchids/etc. and I became very confused and intrigued - how does the wing membrane fold to look the way it does? Also, I have been racking my brain and smacking my head against a wall trying to figure out how bats' wings fold and where the membrane goes (I understand that it is amazingly elastic and can decrease in size about 20% last I knew), along with where the digits of the wing-hand are placed within the folded wing. I am an artist that loves to draw animals, along with dinosaurs and dragons, and my fascination with membranous wings has brought me to these observations. If you had any information on how the wing membrane might fold in your flying reptiles I would be extremely thankful. Thank you for your awesome work and insights!

    18. Mark Witton 56 months ago | reply


      Excellent question: I've been modelling three-dimensional pterosur wings recently and it took some time to work it out. I'll try to post something about it online soon or, alternatively, drop me an E-mail at mark.witton {at} port.ac.uk and I'll see if I can send you some images.

    19. jake.spencer65 51 months ago | reply

      if pterosaurs like those two did not have bird-like necks thus making it impossible to fish, why is pteranodon still classed as a fish eater and not a meat or fruit eater?

    20. Peryton 51 months ago | reply

      Because Pteranodon had a shorter, more flexible neck and because it had very different adaptations from azhdarchids

    keyboard shortcuts: previous photo next photo L view in light box F favorite < scroll film strip left > scroll film strip right ? show all shortcuts