Early pterosaur reconstructions

As noted on here before the first pterosaur specimen to be discovered was rather special and wonderfully detailed and complete. While obviously comparative anatomy was still a developing field in the 1700’s and there were still thousands of exotic and bizarre animals to be discovered or at least studied properly that we now somewhat take for granted (like giraffe or platypus) one would have hoped that the scientists of the day (Cuvier aside) would have recognised it as a reptile.

I’ll happily admit that it doesn’t look much like a ‘typical’ reptile but then, it doesn’t look much like a bird or a mammal either, but with only these two groups known to have produced flying species at the time, the comparison was perhaps inevitable. Certainly there were some bizarre theories flying around at the time for the true nature of pterosaurs, even after other specimens and other species were known. While most of them died a quiet death (with the exception of Harry Seeley’s ‘bird ancestors’ hypothesis which persisted, if only by himself, into the 1900’s) there were still occasionally new interpretations put forward or old ones revived.
One of the most famous (and indeed most reproduced) is that of Edward Newman from 1843 where he suggested that pterosaurs were actually flying marsupials. And here it is in its rather limited glory. One thing to note which is quite common with these kinds of pictures (and indeed of much palaeoart both in the past and, irritatingly / worryingly in the present) is just how many things are fundamentally different to the actual bones. OK, if he thinks they are furry and had little ears then fine, add fur and give them ears – you can’t see otherwise in the skeleton (even if you can infer it if you realise it’s a reptile). BUT you can’t just make the head half the length of that of the body, or make all the toes the same length, or add extra fingers when this is clearly not seen in the fossil (though the ones in the background look far more pterodactylus-y). These kinds of things happen and it’s a horrible conflagration of ignorance or wilful manipulation in most cases. Anyway, enjoy it for what it is, an interesting, if largely now irrelevant part of palaeontological history.

7 Responses to “Early pterosaur reconstructions”

  1. 1 Adam Yates 06/07/2009 at 6:48 pm

    Indeed, in this case it is pretty hard to work out which pterosaurs are being illustrated. The upper one could be said to be loosely based on Scaphognathus, but the lower one? It is I think a complete fantasy.

  2. 2 Zach Miller 07/07/2009 at 4:07 am

    I’ve always had a soft spot for this picture, if only because it’s so damn unique. For the recent Art Evolved pterosaur show, I briefly considered two pieces that would take inspiration from this one: A skeleton of a marsupial spec-evolved into a pterosaur bauplan, and simple an updated “more accurate” portrayal of a bat-like marsupial.

    Time limits and busywork skewered both ideas in the end.

  3. 3 David Hone 07/07/2009 at 5:35 pm

    Adam, I’d be surprised if Scaphognathus was an intended model as all of the ones pictured have the feet and tail of Pterodactyloids unlike the rhamphorhynchoid Scaph. or Dimorphodon which was also know at the time. I think they are all supposed to be Pterodactylus in origin (the ones in the background certainly are and the main one top centre probabnly is too). The one bottom centre may just be, well, ‘new’ would be most charitable. I can’t think of a species know then that might have fitted what the artist wanted to use as a basis.

  4. 4 Lars Dietz 07/07/2009 at 6:07 pm

    The original is online at:
    The upper one is indeed “Pterodactylus crassirostris”, i. e. Scaphognathus (was only the skull known then?), the lower one is P. brevirostris, now considered a juvenile of P. antiquus. I also remember seeing some short-tailed Dimorphodon reconstructions, from a book by Buckland I think.

  5. 5 David Hone 07/07/2009 at 6:18 pm

    Wow, so it is. I stand corrected. Though it doesn’t look much like a Scaphognathus – though that may reflect the lack of care (or dare I suggest it, deliberate manipulation) in the reconstruction. Perhaps the assignment to Pterodactylus partially skewed the drawing toards the better known holotype specimen and hence the discrepancy, either way the bottom one bears little resemblance to Pterodactylus. If only he listed specimen numbers!

    Thanks for the link Lars, that’s very interesting.

  6. 6 Lars Dietz 07/07/2009 at 8:29 pm

    I don’t know any specimen number, but “Pterodactylus brevirostris” is the second pterosaur specimen ever described, from Solnhofen. I can’t find any photo of the specimen online, but I think there is one in Wellnhofer’s book.

  7. 7 David Hone 07/07/2009 at 9:23 pm

    Ah yes, I know the one. I have Wellnhofer’s 1970 and 73 monographs so I’ll soon track it down, thanks. Understnadably I try to stick clear of the Pterodactylus taxonomy, it’s horrible (13 species at one point I believe, plus of course all the odd genera that got doumped in there early on). Thanks again.

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