Terrestrial predators such as…oh

One comes across the oddest things in the press (yes, I’m going after the journalists again). This time out it’s a particularly bizarre one which fits my ‘checking’ hypothesis. Journalists (and bloggers alike) get complex or unusual or important facts from trusted sources (or Wikipedia in most cases I suspect) but fail to check things they think they already know. On occasion this leads to them getting complex ideas right while screwing up the simplest ones. The effort below is a brilliant example. The author correctly identifies a pterosaur as a flying reptile and not a dinosaur, gets the size right, includes a nice size analogy, and (since I assuming she is referring to Quetzalcoatlus specifically and not azhdarchoids in general) the location data is right. Most significantly, the point is very up to date including the recent work of Darren Naish and Mark Witton on terrestrial hunding in azdarchoids and getting it bang on (and let’s face it while this paper was well advertised, it’s not necessarily going to be picked up and remembered by every journalist, or they may not get the central concept correct). However, the last word lets the whole thing down with the kind of deflation normally assocaited by someone with ice-skates taking a turn on a bouncy castle. Here then is the source of my incredulity:

“A flying reptile the size of a spitfire aircraft and with a wingspan of up to 12m lived in North America. Although it could fly, scientists now think it hunted for food on foot, like today’s….


Yes, pelicans. They think pelicans hunt on the ground. Oh.

71163140afwyjlhqanimalsbirdswaterbirdspelicansdivingNow yes, it is true that pelicans like most predatory animals will happily take whatever they can get and will certianly snap up morsels on the ground if they are going (most famously including pigeons) however the idea that they are terrestrial predators in the line of caracaras or ground hornbills is frighteningly shy of the mark. Not only that but, well, it’s a pelican! You know, pelicans. The big birds that I thought pretty much everyone knew ate fish. Out to sea. You know, the old rhyme “hold in his beak, enough fish for a week” etc. Those birds that dive, head first into the sea (accompanying image from here). Hmmm, maybe pterosaurs were doing that, it would at least explain this.

Oh, and here is a link to Darren’s own private pelican collection.

12 Responses to “Terrestrial predators such as…oh”

  1. 1 David Raikow 13/03/2009 at 11:07 pm

    Beware talking to the press. They can take your ordinary everyday catastrophic invasive species, say zebra mussels, and refer to them as…fish. And if they’re interested in your work, you can bet they’ll quote and photograph the advisor, not the grad student who’s actually doing the research. Stay tuned for up coming posts on dealing with the media, or “You too can be B-roll talking head.”

  2. 2 David Hone 14/03/2009 at 1:19 am

    I have documented quite a few horror stories on here myself David. As I say, it’s interesting how they get complex things wrong and ‘easy’ things right.

  3. 3 Zach Miller 14/03/2009 at 3:27 am

    Pelicans are awesome, though. One time at the Topeka Zoo, an extremely large pelican landed by a small pond filled with ducks. This bugger must’ve had a wingspan of between eight and ten feet, unless my mind is remembering it as larger than it actually was. But at the time, I recall thinking that pelicans aren’t supposed to get that big.

    I suspect the bird was opportunistically picking the water clean of all the bird feed that was being tossed by people at the ducks, or perhaps it wanted to snack on the koi fish.

  4. 4 Jerzy 14/03/2009 at 8:15 am

    BTW, did pterosaurs at least swim like pelicans?

  5. 5 David Hone 14/03/2009 at 4:16 pm

    Jerzy, short answer is no. We don’t even know if they could swim, and personally I don’t think they could – something I’m working on…

  6. 6 Nathan Myers 16/03/2009 at 11:16 am

    Probably they could only dog-paddle.

  7. 7 Nathan Myers 16/03/2009 at 11:43 am

    … unless you’re asking about the Giant Boneless Aquatic Pterosaurs that terrified sailors called the “Kraken”, now sadly extinct, having left no remaining physical trace of their existence. Did they swim? I can say with no fear of contradiction that they didn’t fly.

  8. 8 David Hone 16/03/2009 at 4:17 pm

    Based on the fossil footprint record and what we know of the structure and orientation of limbs and especially joints I doubt they could do more than thrash about a bit once they got out of their depth and their feet did not touch the bottom, even a crude dog paddle was probably beyond them.

  9. 9 Nathan Myers 17/03/2009 at 12:09 pm

    I was joking about the dog-paddle, but with substantial bodily air sacs they could easily have been positively buoyant, right? And what is there about their legs that makes them less suited for aquatic propulsion than, say, a horse’s, or a goat’s? I mean these questions in all seriousness; I’m not suggesting any were habitually aquatic, but horses aren’t, either, and they do OK in the water.

  10. 10 David Hone 17/03/2009 at 5:12 pm

    Bouyant yes, but that only mean that they would generally float – if you put water wings on your ankles you will float very well, but you would struggle to stay alive as it would make it hard for you to keep your head up (not that this was their problem, just trying to elucidate the point). For rhamphorhynchoids at least the uropatagium would be a nightmare as it would make it hard to kick either leg in turn, only both together and the size of the membrane would be a big issue for a small animal. Both rhamphs and pterods would have problems in any case kicking the legs with the brachiopataium contacitng the ankles making it hard to move them effectively in the water. The distal wing bones can be quite dense (relatively) and given how the wings fold, they would not come up out of the water as with birds (or not nearly so much). So in general you have perhaps most of the arm and wing submerged and as ever the ankles shackled to the wings, and also the pedes may not have been able to splay out backwards (like a human) only sideways. While none of these would have been fatal to swimming, they would have been very slow and clumsy and propulsion would be of the thrashing variety, probably only using the lower legs.

  11. 11 Nathan Myers 19/03/2009 at 7:29 pm

    Thank you, that was just the sort of detail I was hoping for.

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