As readers will remember, a couple of weeks back I dropped in on Luis Rey to talk over dinosaurs, pterosaurs, classic rock albums and help him get a blog up and running for his new artwork. Inevitably the conversation at one point turned to thinks Luis hadn’t yet done and things I was interested in seeing. I noted that for all the raft of pterosaurs Luis had thrown out in recent year, neither Darwinopterus or any of it’s close relatives had made it into his collection and given the novelty and importance of these taxa, it should surely be high on the priority list.
Luis simply suggested I sketch what I had in mind and he’d have a go. The turn around was rapid and the result was beautiful and here it is already:
I sent Luis some images of the wonderful Darwinopterus robustodens specimen as a source for proportions and general anatomy and produced a sketch of the posture I wanted. I can’t remember ever having seen a picture of a pterosaur about to land on a tree and that’s what I went for. I’ve seen plenty of them in trees, flying between trees and even taking off, but not in the act of landing. I’m also a big fan of unusual image shapes for art and love things that eschew the normal A4-type proportions, so I specifically asked for something very tall and thin to emphasise the height of the tree and the wingstroke. Anything other than that is shackling the artist (especially when it’s Luis) and something I don’t like to do if I can avoid it, so I said nothing about colours, patterns, background etc.
Anyway, here it is (and here it is on Luis’ pages). My massive thanks to him for his work and for crediting me with far too much. Head over there and tell him how awesome it is for me.
Since the description of the amazing Darwinopterus modularis there has suddenly been a huge rash (or even rush) of new Darwinopterus-like taxa to be described from the Middle Jurassic Chinese beds. A few of them I’ve managed to get hold of photos for and pictured in my great Chinese pterosaur roundup earlier this year.
Clearly at least some taxonomic revision is going to be needed here as, even assuming every named genus and species is valid (which I rather doubt), some of the current descriptions and definitions don’t really overlap. So many taxa have come out so fast (and from two different research groups) that inevitably things have been published without any kind of real comparison to the others which were unpublished at the time.
Into this maelstrom comes Darwinopterus robustodens which as you might have already guessed has rather robust teeth, but otherwise is incredibly similar to the other taxa in this little assortment. What makes this stand out in at least one way is the simply magnificent condition of the holotype (shown here thanks to Lu Junchang). Every one of the others so far has a bit missing (like most of the skull of Wukongopterus) or is not actually that well preserved (like the referred specimen of D. modularis) or is a bit disarticulated (like Kunpengopterus) or some combination of these.
This on the other hand is all but perfect. It’s complete (right down to the end of the tail) it’s articulated, and it’s in great condition. There is more to see in this specimen than any of the other dozen or so that have already been refereed to this group of pterosaurs. That will be most helpful when it comes to sorting out the taxonomy of these animals and makes for a near perfect display piece.
Many of you may have seen this already, but a new paper is out with what can only be described as a female pterosaur. This is big news, while there have been suggestions in the literature (most notably about Pteranodon) about some specimens representing males or females, this is one rather more convincing than many for the simple reason that there is an egg associated with it. That it is another Darwinopterus and a great specimen too, only adds to the interest.
The egg, sadly, lacks any trace of an embryo (though this is perhaps not surprising as obviously the egg was only about to be laid, not about to hatch) but has all the characteristics of pterosaur eggs and is the right size and shape. It also lies between the legs of the female and just behind the pelvis. That it is not in the body is not a major issue – a similar situation is commonly seen with icthyosaurs for example where decomposition leads to bloating of the body and forces out anything large and solid like a late term embryo or as in this case, and egg that’s ready to be laid.
Oddly enough the real interest in the paper lies in the head of the animal. The egg clearly points to this being a female but the head has no trace of a crest, despite other specimens of Darwinopterus having one (as you can see here for example). The strong suggestion therefore is that Darwinopterus is sexually dimorphic with males having crests and females none. The authors make a pretty good case, though a hatful of other specimens with other consistent differences in something approaching a 50:50 split would be better still.
One note of warning I would add though, is not to take this too far. Such extrapolation is fine for Darwinopterus, but I’d be very wary of taking the same basic criterion and applying it to other pterosaurs. Just as a quick example, many antelope and bovids have horns in males and females, and some can be nearly identical between the two, and in reindeer the females have antlers for parts of the year when males have none, while in most deer of course only males present antlers. I suspect it’s a matter of days before we see the first crested pterosaur specimen = male (or no crest = female) blog posts or media reports but this would be, for me, a very big assumption too far. A great start yes, but not even the end of the beginning for pterosaur dimoprhism.
Special thanks to Lu Jungchang for these special photos.
I’ve literally just come back from visiting Jungchang Lu who let me and some colleagues look over some of his pterosaur material. Especially nice of him is that he said I could post up a picture of one of his Darwinopterus specimens so here it is, as fresh off the press as it’s possible to be in this digital age. So here it is:
Things are slacking off for me slowly so hopefully I can get back to some serious posts this week rather than just this succession of picture posts. However, I would think that with images this good it probably doesn’t matter how little I write.
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The skull of Darwinopterus - courtesy Dave Unwin
I do so dislike the term ‘transitional fossil’, like ‘missing link’ and ‘ancestor’ these words and phrases have been warped by the media (I think) to the point where they seem to be accepted as technical scientific terms for what were largely informal general concepts and the whole things has become a bit of a minefield. When you add to that the willful misuse and manipulation of the terms by some to try to challenge evolution then it gets even worse. However there are times when something is so obvious and clear and simple that it is hard to use any other term. No, I don’t like ‘transitional fossil’, and this is not a ‘transition’ in the sense of an ancestor because, well that’s not how palaeontology works, BUT, if you want an example of ingtwo separate body plans and shunt them together into some kind of 50-50 version, this is it. Yes, today saw the publication of the new pterosaur Darwinopterus and as the title of this post and introductory paragraph gives away, it is a real intermediate between two groups of pterosaurs.
Continue reading ‘One hell of an intermediate – presenting Darwinopterus’