Archive for January, 2011

Musings and the media

It’s been a busy couple of days for me with respect to the media. On Tuesday morning I was doing a very short radio spot for BBC Radio Bristol on Bentonyx. The combination of a former Bristol student naming a Bristol held specimen after a Bristol professor was rather too much for them and so I got to add another 2 minutes of fame towards my 15. If you are desperate to hear more of my ‘dulcet’ tones (after this and this) then you can hear it again here for the next week (it starts at 2hr 25mins).

And far more excitingly, I was on the Daily Planet show on the Discovery Channel in North America. You can see this here for, I hope, a few days at least. This focuses on the UV work that I’ve been doing with Helmut Tischlinger at the IVPP and there’s a great chance to see some fossils in UV. It was damned hard work and it’s amazing how little you get out of 2 days solid filming (just a 5+ minute slot). The experience is probably worth a post on it’s own but here at least are a couple of photos from it. Overall I’m really quite pleased and I’m certainly impressed with how it was put together and the way in which they got the main points over to a lay audience.

With radio and TV covered that really leaves just the traditional print media and that should be covered by story number 3 depending on quite when the next paper goes to print. I’m told it might be this week but no confirmation yet. That’s all the hint you’re getting for now, as ever, watch this space.


Thanks to the historical associations between Ireland and the UK, the Dublin Museum has some really great pieces that you would not necessarily expect. I found this in their collections and was delighted to do so. It’s a cast of the original Hylaeosaurus a little known armoured dinosaur but one with an important history. This specimen was found (or at least made it’s way into science) by the legendary Gideon Mantell and was one of just three dinosaurs that Richard Owen put into his newly erected clade ‘Dinosauria’. Yes this really is one of *the* original dinosaurs.

What I really like about this (aside from it being quite a cool specimen) is the lovely work on the cast. it’s well painted, and beautifully mounted in it’s wooden frame which has exquisite lettering. This is from a time when money was no object to scientists and even something destined for a storeroom would be mounted and treated this well. Ah, those were the days….



I have complained before (who? me? complain?) about the common journalistic fallacy that proof of X is not proof against Y. All proving X does is show that X is true, not that Y is false. However, it’s easy to see how this comes about – many ‘obvious’ anatomical features certain seem to have, or are famous for having, just a single function. Deer fight with their antlers, peacocks display with their tails and so on. However, even some supposedly monofunctional features can have more functions, if more minor ones – the antlers of deer and horns over various bovids are used for fighting off predators as well as rivals, but also act as rather minor heat-loss features. Sure, it’s pretty minor, but it is a function that they perform, and may even be selected for.

Some features however can have a great many functions and all of them may be important. Both the tusks and trunk of an elephant can be used for all manner of things – fighting, signalling, collecting food, manipulating the environment and others. It’s not only hard to say which of these is the most important now, but which (if any) may have been the original driving force behind it’s selection is very hard to tease out. Thus making explicit statements about other functions and the selection pressures behind them is a very risky thing to be do without good evidence. Sorting this out properly requires, as far as possible, testing individual hypotheses about function in isolation and rejecting or accepting them based on the available data.

This should be quite obvious, and yet inevitably in the media (and sadly, on quite a few occasions in the literature) this simple error is repeated. Single functions are tested and found to be a use of a feature but then this is then incorrectly extended to be assumed to be the sole or primary function. Watch out for these, they can be very misleading and it is an exceptionally easy trap to fall into.

Thanks to Rachel Kilby for the photo. 2010 research roundup

One of the main motivations behind the creation of was to get real information the public from real researchers about pterosaurs. There is a ton of internet stuff on pterosaurs and (from what I have seen at least) the vast majority is out of date, badly put together, inaccurate or just amazingly wrong in a way that is far more common that that for dinosaurs for example. Of course, the flipside of this is that we as a group kinda need to show that we know what we are talking about.

That is actually really rather hard to do, but we can at least show that we are actively involved in research. Here then is a list of the papers and conference abstracts that the team have been involved in over the last year. Given that for many of us, pterosaurs are not our main arm of research (Darren Naish and I both do more dinosaurs than pterosaurs, Mike Habib also works on birds), and that we do have other things to do as well (Ross Elgin has a PhD thesis to write, Lorna Steel is a museum curator) it’s really pretty good.

In addition to most of us making it to Flugsaurier this year (which of course does bump up the abstract quotient) we have pushed out a decent sized fistful of pterosaur papers. While we don’t form any kind of formal research aggregate, the fact that we have and continue to collaborate within this community must make us one of, if not the, most productive and influential pterosaur groups out there. You could (and doubtless some will!) argue that we d0n’t know what we are doing, but we are certainly contributing heavily.

Conway, J.A. 2010 Reconstructing a pterosaur, a case study. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1):14

Dyke, G., Benton, M., Posmosanu, E., Naish, D. 2010. Early Cretaceous (Berriasian) birds and pterosaurs from the Cornet bauxite mine, Romania. Palaeontology, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2010.00997.x

Elgin, R.A., Hone, D.W.E., Frey, E. 2010. The extent of the pterosaur flight membrane. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, in press.

Habib, M. 2010. The structural mechanics and evolution of aquaflying birds. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 99(4): 687-698

Habib, M. 2010. 10,100 Miles: Maximum range and soaring efficiency of azhdarchid pterosaurs. J. Vert. Paleontol., SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2010: 99A. 2010. Soaring efficiency and long distance travel in giant pterosaurs. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1):27-28

Habib, M., Cunningham, J. 2010. Capacity for Water Launch in Anhanguera and Quetzalcoatlus. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1):24-25

Habib, M., Godfrey, S. 2010. On the hypertrophied opisthotic processes in Dsungaripterus weii Young (Pterodactyloidea, Pterosauria). Acta Geoscientica Sinica 31(S1):26-26

Hone, D.W.E., Lü, J. 2010. A new specimen of Dendrorhynchoides (Pterosauria: Anurognathidae) with a long tail and the evolution of the pterosaurian tail. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1):29-30

Hyder, E. S., Martill, D. M., Witton, M. P. 2010. A neoazhdarchian pelvis with a possible preserved air sac from the Santana Formation of Brazil: implications for functionality and phylogeny. Acta Geoscientica Sinica, 31 (1), 32-32.

Monninger, S., Frey, E., Elgin, R., Tischlinger, H., Sartori, J., & Schneider, P. 2010. Folds, wrinkles and the material properties of the pterosaurian flight membrane. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1): 52

Moody, R. T. J., Naish, D. 2010. Alan Jack Charig (1927-1997): an overview of his academic accomplishments and role in the world of fossil reptile research. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, 89-109.

Naish, D. 2010. Pneumaticity, the early years: Wealden Supergroup dinosaurs and the hypothesis of saurischian pneumaticity. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. &Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, 229-236.

Nesbitt, S.J., Hone, D.W.E. An external mandibular fenestra in pterosaurs supports placement within Archosauriformes. Palaeodiversity, 3: 225-233.

Steel, L. 2010. The Pterosaur collection at the Natural History Museum, London, UK, overview, recent curatorial developments and exciting new finds. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1):59-61

Tomkins, J. L., LeBas, N. R., Witton, M. P., Martill, D. M. and Humphries, S. 2010. Positive allometry and the prehistory of sexual selection. The American Naturalist, 176, 141-148.

Tütken, T., Hone, D.W.E. 2010. The ecology of pterosaurs based on carbon and oxygen isotope analysis. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1) 65-67.

Witton M, Habib M. 2010. On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness. PLoS ONE. 5(11): e13982. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013982

Witton M, Habib M. 2010. The volancy, or not, of giant pterosaurs. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31(S1):76-78

Witton, M. P. 2010. Pteranodon and beyond: the history of giant pterosaurs from 1870 onward. In: Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. and Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 310, 313-323.

Witton, M. P., Martill, D. M. and Loveridge, R. F. 2010. Clipping the wings of giant pterosaurs: comments on wingspan estimations and diversity. Acta Geoscientica Sinica, 31 (1), 79-81.

Packing them in

My thanks to Matt van Rooijen of the Optimistic Painting blog for this photo from the Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum in Australia. As you can see they have one hell of a pile of dinosaurs here and have maximised the amount of floorspace to stuff them in. From the perspective of the average museum visitor this is pretty nice – when I was young I’d have been delighted to see this many dinosaurs in one small space and I do appreciate the spectacle of things like this. However, the researcher in me is rather frustrated. You can’t see the details which have become bread and butter to me but which the average visitor would not care about, and nor is it easy to take photos of skeletons in isolation. Obviously I’m hardly suggesting that museums should lay out their exhibits to benefit the odd researcher for every ten thousand visitors they get, but it can be annoying. I (obviously) prefer the more open plan ones, but on balance I’d rather see 10 dinosaurs crammed in than 3 well spaced out.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 16: more cleaning

Final work on the Gorgosaurus continues and I’m on track for being ready for the planned mid-February for molding of the specimen. At this stage, bare areas of the jacket are being glued and sand from the Gorgosaurus block sprinkled on to the wet glue to create “rock texture”. This is being done so the latex mold is of rock or simulated rock and not the bare plaster jacket. A few more belly ribs have also been found and most of the nice ilium uncovered. The ilium looked awful at first with a bad crack running through it but it has been saved. The attached pictures speak volumes as to how nice this specimen is. There is little more to show preparation-wise on this specimen (until the mold is started) so the future updates will be more photographic in nature as the specimen nears completion.

All photos here and in the series are owned by Darren Tanke and the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

Quick catchup

Another short post, but one filled with linky goodness. First off, Jeff Martz has acquired a new blog, and his first post is really quite a superb summary of what palaeontology *is*, something I’ve foolishly not actually written about on here before and is well worth a read.

Next off, for those who remember Fodonyx and Bentonyx, the University of Bristol now has a short article up about this. And what is interesting for me is that (and I hope I’m not doing them a disservice) despite this being a small piece by the Alumni Foundation newsletter people they have managed to get the italicisation right for the scientific names, something most media outlets would do well to copy.

Finally, as a bit of fun, Darren Tanke put me onto this YouTube vid – an early British experimental aeroplane named the ‘Pterodactyl’ complete with a little Dimorphodon-like logo.

PPC final summary

Yes the Palaeo Project Challenge is now over. If you want to see how you fared against the others then check out Andy’s summary. Of course you can go over there even if you weren’t taking part and feel smug about the number of people who utterly failed to complete their self assigned tasks. Joking apart though, this does seem to provide some genuine fun and motivation for getting unfinished things finished so it does its job. Enjoy.

Guest post: Gwawinapterus – a new Canadian pterosaur

Those with an ear to the ground might well have heard already about Gwawinapterus a new istiodacylid pterosaur from Canada. This is quite a find as it represents the first istiodactylid from outside Eurasia and is by far the most recent extending both the geographic and temporal range of the group. Describer Victoria Arbour, (who also writes the rather entertaining Pseudplocephalus blog about her dinosaur travels) takes us through the history of the find and the difficult identification of the jaws.

Continue reading ‘Guest post: Gwawinapterus – a new Canadian pterosaur’

A Musings milestone

This post, rather unspectacular on its own represents the 750th post on the WordPress version of the Musings (plus of course some 80+ on Dinobase before then).  Those posts total over 150 000 words (that’s a big sized paperback novel give or take) and there’s more than 1000 images of various kinds on there too.

While it’s normal to want more success for your blogging efforts, the Musings has racked up just a shade under 400 000 readers going back to June 2008, so this also represents a kind of 2.5 year anniversary on this platform as well. It’s also seen more than 4000 comments appear, though a great many of them are internal trackbacks and my own replies, which means I’m actually only getting about 1 comment per 200 readers which seems to me rather low.

All in all I’m rather happy with what I have done. While there are blogs and bloggers out there that leave me in the shade, I feel I’ve built up a pretty good collection of material over the years and generally managed to hit my target audience of ‘intermediates’ between the real experts and real basics. I hope this is proving fun and enjoyable for those reading, that’s really why I do it, and I hope to keep going, though again I’m running a bit short of both inspiration and images again. Encouragement, jpegs and ideas are all welcome.

Dinosaur egg musings

Dinosaur eggs have featured on here once or twice, but I’ve never done much more than mention them in passing with the odd decent photo. This is at least in part because they don’t normally impinge much in my fields of work and as such, I’ve never learned that much about them in detail so don’t have too much to pass on. Nevertheless, they are worthy of a bit more attention than I have managed in the past and there has been a minor spate of egg based stuff coming out recently.

Most importantly of course, eggs can, on occasion, house fossilised embryos. These of course being exceptionally young animals tend to have some things poorly preserved (like skulls) or completely absent (like ribs), and can look quite different to the adults. Thus, even when you actually have an embryo in the egg, it’s not always entirely clear to which animal it truly belongs. Still, such finds do of course provide incredible information about the developmental biology of dinosaurs and when the species is known, you get the possibility of obtaining a growth series of everything from an unhatched juvenile right the way through to an adult. That’s quite amazing, and quite impossible without eggs.
In some cases we do know quite a lot about eggs and nests. Thanks to the presence of embryos we can tell which eggs were produced by which taxa. The nature of the nests can reveal something about behaviour and biology as well. Some nests seem to have the eggs produced in pairs, this fits with a troodontid known with a pair of eggs inside the body, suggesting that two eggs developed at a time in these dinosaurs and then were laid as a pair (presumably one from each ovary), and of course also suggests that these eggs were laid over a period of time like birds, and not spat out in one go like crocs or turtles.

Understanding such things (which taxa laid which eggs, how they grew and changed, how nests were created or looked after) can provide real information about dinosaur biology that cannot be gained or accurately inferred from other data. Ultimately more complex and interesting data such as the number of eggs produced by a given animal in a season or year, or how many animals nested in a locality at a time providing population data and significantly adding to our understanding of ecology and sociality in these animals. There is more to come, and I look forward to seeing it, even if it may be quite some time away.

Continuing a theme

Having gone through a bunch of pterosaur fossils of late I thought I’d finally get this one out of my ‘to do’ pile as it makes for a simple and quick post while I’m tied up with other things. It’s probably a Sinopterus, but as it was on display, badly lit, someway behind some dirty glass, in a small provincial museum in Liaoning, China and unlabeled, it’s rather hard to be sure (and especially not now it’s been over 18 months since I actually saw it). Still, it’s another one to add to the collection and looks pretty good. I’m hoping to get back there this summer so I may yet get a better look.

More pterosaurs to come and a Musings special review post.

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