The one that started it all

This skeleton is likely to be familiar to many as one of the best specimens of Pterodactylus known, (it’d probably be my number 3) and certainly it is one of the most often illustrated and referenced. The reason, if you didn’t know already, is that this is the first pterosaur specimen known to science.

pterod-holoI do have a few photos of this specimen knocking around but I decided to go with this illustration that I did a while back and never used. It was not intended to be used in an academic paper so it could be better, but it’s certainly good enough and should be instantly recognisable (I hope so anyway).There are a few minor things worth commenting on here that I think are rarely, if ever, discussed in context, so let’s take a closer look.

First off, it’s a really good specimen and this must have made a great deal of difference to early researchers. They could easily have got a jumbled up and broken Rhamphorhynchus, or a pair of wings, or a headless body any of which would have made it a lot harder to work out what the animal was likely to be. Even so, confusion reigned for a long time with all kinds of bizarre ideas floating around about pterosaurs – imagine what it would be like if all they had had was the Zittel wing, or half a Quetzalcoatlus.

Secondly, the skeleton is in rather an odd posture. Most 2-D pterosaurs come out either on their back with the head turned to one side, or are naturally side on. Provided the skeleton is complete there is rarely any major disassociation of the actual bones but here the head and neck have obviously twisted around quite dramatically to lie in the position. Were it not for the position of the head we would probably illustrate this animal the other way up so the feet point down – it’s a pretty big shift in position.

I doubt that in the long run this specimen not showing up when it did would have made a huge difference to pterosaur research, but it certainly prevented a few false dawns. I think the history of palaeontology if often neglected to a degree and for this one specimen it did have a profound impact early on in the science of ‘pterosaurology’ (copyright Dave Unwin, and he’s largely welcome to it) and it is interesting to wonder what might have occurred without it.

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