The worst pterosaur ever and the public perception of dinosaurs

It’s all too easy to pick upon cheap plastic toys and complain about how bad they are, so I will. However, despite the withering criticism and scorn I am about to pour onto this awful excuse for a ‘pterosaur’ there is a more pertinent point to be made, so either enjoy the bile and then stoke one’s chin thoughtfully over the social commentary / science / dinosaurs bit, or just skip to that now if you can’t be bothered too wade through the ‘look at the bloody carpus, it’s rubbish!’ rubbish.

I picked this thing up in Mexico as part of my trip last year and despite the proto-post languishing for the best part of a year I have been re-inspired to write about it thanks to some photos of a colleague of mine. First off, what’s wrong with this? Well, anyone who has read my ‘top 10’ pterosaur mistakes will be familiar with most of them already. But in short:

The head is too small (of if you prefer the body is too big)
The shape of the crest is wrong
The neck is too short
There’s no propatagium / pteroid
The fingers face the wrong way and are the wrong lengths
The wing finger is too short
It has bat wings (and by extension some six fingers)
The wings have scales on them
The shape of the body is wrong
The legs are too short
It has a weird reversed toe
There is no uropatagium
There is a long tail
The tail vane should not be present, and even if you want to argue for a rhamphorhynchoid tail, the vane is the wrong shape.

In other words, this is really, really bad. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever seen worse and I have looked. It pretty much fits every ‘top 10’ of bad pterosaurs which in itself is quite and achievement. However, the important thing here that I want to note is not how bad it is, but the fact that it came in a big pack of dinosaurs most of which were actually pretty good. OK, so the colours were lurid and most were a bit too upright in stance so they balanced on their tails, but really the proportions and details were about right (raptorial claw, long arms and stiff tail for the dromaeosaur, huge skull and just two fingers for the tyrannosaur, non-dragging tail for the sauropod and so on). Why then such a disaster when we reach the pterosaur?

I have touched on this before, but I think it is ultimately an artefact of public perception. Thanks largely due to Jurassic Park, but also any number of associated projects (other dinosaur films, new books, documentaries etc.) that spawned from its popularity, dinosaurs have had a new lease of life. The public (like it or not) have been exposed to lots and lots and lots of ‘modern’ upright, feathered, active dinosaurs. As such, if only subconsciously, they have a new perception of dinosaurs.

However, the pterosaurs seem not to have enjoyed the same shift in perception. They still lumber about with bat wings and scaly bodies, perched on tree branches or gliding through the air. I’m not foolish enough to think that pterosaurs will ever get the attention that dinosaurs do (and I’m happy to admit that at some level they don’t deserve that attention – the average dinosaur is more interesting and / or important than the average pterosaur) but this in itself is odd. To many people, pterosaurs *are* synonymous with dinosaurs so you would think that they might get dragged into the 21st century of public perceptions if only by accident. Even if not, many people accept and recognise that our understanding of dinosaurs has and continues to change rapidly, yet bizarrely they seem not to realise that this *also* happens to all the other prehistoric beasties.

It is I think an odd situation. The public seem to have accepted a ‘new’ vision of dinosaurs with all that entails while steadfastly refusing to budge on anything else, including pterosaurs which many consider to be dinosaurs. It’s a rather odd state of affairs and leaves us with this terrible pterosaur in an otherwise satisfactory collection of cheap dinosaur toys. I’m forced to conclude that, sadly, it may simply be that the average member of the pubic pays so little attention, and gives so little thought, to anything not explicitly put in front of them (be it in the cinema or a textbook) that they miss the point that lots of research on all things is going on all the time. This (I guess) filters down to the point that anyone not actively interested in pterosaurs or palaeontology as a whole might not be aware of this, to the point that even someone designing model dinosaurs knows about dromaeosaur claws, but not pterosaur wings.

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24 Responses to “The worst pterosaur ever and the public perception of dinosaurs”

  1. 1 mattvr 30/11/2009 at 10:59 am

    I guess all you can do is expose the modern idea of Pterosaurs as much as possible. Encourage and inspire artists and writers when you encounter them, we love new cool ideas.

    I’d have to admit I haven’t kept up with the latest pterosaur theories and discoveries. I even admit to ignorance on the latest research on walking gates for these animals, and I’d describe myself as an enthusiast of all kinds of prehistoric life.

    • 2 David Hone 30/11/2009 at 12:04 pm

      Well that is my approach, but it does get a little confusing. I mena, I *know* how cool dinosaurs are, but when the 30th new ‘special’ program about T.rex comes out you do wonder if it would really hurt TV or filmmakers to cover pterosaurs or pliosaurs or calicotheres in detail just once?

    • 3 David Hone 30/11/2009 at 1:28 pm

      I should have added that I don’t think you have to have not “kept up with the latest pterosaur theories and discoveries“ to be a bit better informed that this pterosaur which is stuck in the mid-1800s.

      • 4 mattvr 01/12/2009 at 8:05 am

        LOL! You mean they didn’t have bat wings?
        Perhaps it’s a homage to the very first Pterosaur images? Ahem…
        I guess my point is that new discoveries that change our understanding are the fuel for inspiration and then publicity.

        I couldn’t agree more about TV executives, but they are strange beasts themselves. Working in a creative industry that rewards risk takers they somehow always steer toward the safe (T-Rex’s are cool) bet.

  2. 5 David 30/11/2009 at 11:13 am

    Why is the average dinosaur more interesting/important than the average pterosaur? (I can understand this for theropods on maniraptorans that are more closely related to birds).

    • 6 David Hone 30/11/2009 at 12:02 pm

      Despite my love of pterosaurs I’d argue that (at the moment) dinosaurs are more important than pterosaurs 9on average) as we can learn much more about them and their world than we can with pterosaurs. So many fundamental so pterosaurs are either unknown, questionable or highly contentious that advanced research is hampered. Their fossils are often badly crushed or much of them are missing, their taxonomy is poor and so on. Combined (though of course the two issues are closely related) it means that you can’t so much with a pterosaur compared to a dinosaur. If you want to look at ecology or population distributions or growth and histology or whatever, pterosaurs are really not much use, whereas dinosaurs are very good subjects.

  3. 7 CQC 30/11/2009 at 12:08 pm

    Obviously uniting the best/worst aspects of pterosaurs is

    Worst because if anything, Rodan is even more inaccurate than that you present here. (I mean, he’s a guy in a suit.) Best because Rodan **is totally awesome.** (Your mileage may vary.)

    • 8 David Hone 30/11/2009 at 1:35 pm

      Well to be fair, they did have to re-engineer a pterosaur there to accommodate a man inside the suit, and that design is 50 years old. And, it’s a Godzilla film, where accuracy of giant (and mutated) animals was never their big selling point to be fair.

      I’ve still not seen this one, but I may have a job to track down a copy in China with English subtitles, though I have subjected myself to some awesomely bad pterosaur-based films. One to add to the list.

  4. 9 Allen Hazen 30/11/2009 at 3:42 pm

    Are those cross-hatchings on the wings really ment to represent scales? I thought they were stiffening or strengthening fibers in the wing membrane. … Pterosaurs did have stiffening fibers in the wings: were they all parallel or were there, as in this critter, different layers going at different angles?

    The six-fingered feature (three free grasping fingers as in Pterosaurs plus some embedded in the wing membrane as in bats) is interesting. Maybe it’s not a Pterosaur at all, but a specimen of Pterosauromimus, the little-known volant derived Ichthyostegalian. (Grin!)

    • 10 David Hone 30/11/2009 at 4:53 pm

      Well it gets complex. Aside from the recent paper on Jeholopterus, all known acintofibrils ran subparallel to the main wing fingwer distally and then slowly shift proximally so that they are sub perpendicular and then there are none close in to the body (in other words, they kind of radiate out from the elbow). The holotype of Jeholopterus suggests that there were actually several layes of actinofibrils in this taxon at least and that these are at an angle to each other.

      The back of the model suggests that he really is trying to make scales and not actinofibrils. Even if he was going for actinofibrils, the model massively predates that paper so it can hardly be that the modeller was trying to copy unknown research and thus got things wrong (they should be radiating only). Even then they are rather too thick, not common enough, present proximally when they should not be etc. and we only have an imprecise picture of the multi-layers of Jeholopteurs and don’t know if this was true of other pterosaurs. In short, he may by chance have got one aspect a bit right, but still got plenty of others wrong.

  5. 11 El PaleoFreak 01/12/2009 at 12:02 am

    There are plastic pterosaurs much worser. I’m collecting them.
    Visit my photoblog Plasticosauria if you are interested in wrong, funny, fantasy or vintage plastic/rubber reptilians.

    • 12 David Hone 01/12/2009 at 8:02 am

      Oh I know there are much worse out there, but my main point was the contrast between the otherwise quite good dinosaurs and the deeply average at best pterosaur.

  6. 13 Zach Miller 03/12/2009 at 10:17 am

    Maybe it’s a cheiropterosaur–you know, a Pteranodon and a bat got together after getting very, very drunk.

  7. 14 Graham Peter King 12/04/2010 at 9:49 am

    I deplore bad models on scientific and aesthetic grounds. I think any model labelled as a particular creature (Pteranodon, or pterosaur) should attempt realism.
    But I wonder if these models’ inaccuracies (to our eyes and minds) even matter to the makers? (and to their imagined audience?)

    I think the actuality of extinct creatures is felt keenly by palaontologists (and some science-enthused youngsters) far more than it is by many adults and children. To the latter, all these creatures may co-occupy a fantasy realm – along with make-believe ghosts, witches and zombies. The very concepts of reality and accuracy may not even form part of their mindset. Rather, fearsomeness and a kitsch kind of ‘monster-aesthetic’ may inform their decisions; not ‘what did it [past animal] once look like’ but ‘what should this [imagined entity] be made to look like’.

    I would like to link this to classical and mediaeval and folk-tale (including present-day) story-telling and art – carvings of dragons and wyverns, cathedral gargoyles, tales of mermaids and ogres (and also to pulp sci-fi).
    Particularly when fossils and aberrant living forms (odd rarities, mutations and developmental abnormalities) have been regarded as ‘sports’ of nature – playful experiments of a creative ‘plastic’ life-force – many of the purveyors may have seen themselves as dealing in marvels and wonders – but as entertainers first and foremost, not informers of factual reality.

    The role of inspiring awe and firing up others’ imaginations and having fun with that, are legitimate ones. I myself can enjoy both realistic and wholly fantastic creatures.

    I do think that buyers have a right to know what kind of product they are getting; but a copy of the manufacturers’ brief to the modelmaker and a list of scientific refernces sources the latter consulted is unlikely to accompany such mass market models any time soon (unless public demand for such makes it economic).

    Meanwhile, scientific parents and the more fact-oriented offspring may enjoy using these toys to discuss the concepts of ‘factual’ and ‘reconstructed’ and ‘made-up’, and aspects of research into truth, creative art, and imagination.

  8. 15 David Hone 12/04/2010 at 11:40 am

    “I deplore bad models on scientific and aesthetic grounds. I think any model labelled as a particular creature (Pteranodon, or pterosaur) should attempt realism.”

    Of course! 😉

    “But I wonder if these models’ inaccuracies (to our eyes and minds) even matter to the makers? (and to their imagined audience?)”

    Probably not. But then that would be my point in this particular case. If you are the consumer and are told that this is Pteranodon and looks like Pteranodon and is based on evidence and fossils of what Pteranodon looks like, then you have a degree of expectation that this will look like Pteranodon. It doesn’t. I’m personally ever outraged by places that seem to think it somehow appropriate to say a reconstruction is ‘based on the latest scientific research’ and then turns out looking like something from the 1800’s. It seems to be a bolt-ion statement that can be declared about absolutely any prehistoric life reconstruction and be assumed to be correct, no matter how demonstrably wrong. It’s often simply a lie.

    However, I think your central point is right. These things are just generally interesting and inspiring, but I think you have to make a separation between reality and fantasy. I’m not fussed about supposed inaccuracies of dinosaurs when the cavemen or superheroes are attacking, but I am annoyed when this is sold as an educational toy / TV show that claims accuracy (or even a fantasy show if they then claim accuracy). It’s a question of intent, if you say or imply this is accurate, then *make* it accurate. Don’t pretend you can just say it is and that will do. It won’t.

  9. 16 mattvr 13/04/2010 at 8:56 am

    Mass produced anything tends to leave things lacking.
    Doing something right takes time and money, usually in short supply for cheap off the shelf dinosaur toys.

    It takes someone like this: to get it right, but he’s hardly selling off the shelf in the supermarket check out.
    You can see the time and effort that’s gone into these.

    • 17 David Hone 13/04/2010 at 9:39 am

      True, but there’s accuracy and accuracy. It doesn’t have to be photo perfect to be a good and generally accurate reconstruction. The one above is not, plenty are.

  10. 18 DinoSaur 15/04/2010 at 1:49 pm

    Wow! And would Sordes laugh to death if it saw that toy! HA HA HA!!! Anyhow, there’s not even the slightest trace of fur on that thing!

  11. 19 Hannah 05/05/2012 at 9:25 pm

    It could be worse. It could have had teeth.
    (I’m going to make the ….shaky…. assumption they were going for Pteranodon.)

    • 20 Boss 22/08/2012 at 9:54 am

      I had one of those when I was a kid… except it had big pointy teeth and wings that weren’t so much bat-like as… how’d you put it? Scythe-shaped? And whoever made it had the gall to call it a Pteranodon.

  12. 21 Matt Bille 05/04/2013 at 7:24 pm

    I’m truly puzzled by the attribution of a pterosaur illustration to me. I’ve never written on pterosaurs, living or extinct. I’ve never drawn one. Indeed, I’ve never published an illustration of anything, and no one would be able to recognize the subject if I did 🙂 Please make a correction. Regards, Matt Bille

    • 22 David Hone 05/04/2013 at 8:57 pm

      I’m most puzzled by this, there’s only one photo here that I took, no other illustrations and no attributions to anything of your name by me or anyone else I can find on here….

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