Pterosaur tail vanes – a very rough diamond

Having briefly covered the presence of a tail vane (or otherwise) in various pterosaurs and glossed over their structure, it’s time to deal with a trickier subject – their shape.

Most palaeoart illustrations of tail vanes show a diamond or kite-like outline for a tail vane, but this shape is not actually seen in any adult rhamphorhynchoids. A long, narrow and paddle-shaped vane is seen in Sordes and Pterorhynchus and thus is likely the norm for the scaphognathines (the group to which both probably belong) at least. The biggest adult specimens of Rhamphorhynchus have a vane that is roughly in the shape of an equilateral triangle with one side at the tip of the tail and the correspondingly opposite apex lying anteriorly (like an arrow pointing forwards). So where does the diamond tail concept come from?

Dimorphodon with a diamond tail vane. Image courtesy of Luis Rey.

The key above is the word ‘adult’ – while previously specimens of Rhamphorhynchus were split into quite a number of species, more recently these were brought together as a single species by Chris Bennett, but one represented by numerous juvenile animals. Specimens of Rhamphorhynchus do have a diamond or kite tail vane, but none of them are adults (though they may be close to adult size), and indeed the presence of different vane shapes does correlate with the apparent age of the animals, thus these shapes do seem to be part of an ontogenetic sequence leading up to the adult shape of a triangle. The youngest specimens have a rather thing leaf shape or spear-head shaped tail, mid-sized specimens have the diamond or kite and one especially large and adult animal has the triangle.

Tail vanes from various Rhamphorhynchus specimens. From Wellnhofer, 1978.

The diamond has persisted in palaeoart for a number of reasons. First of all it’s already the most commonly illustrated tail van both in the literature and in reconstructions and thus will inevitable serve as a model for those following. It’s also present in probably the most specimens, and is present in the specimens that were referred to the type species of Rhamphorhycnhus. However, the application of this tail vane to pretty much every rhamphorhynchoid is clearly incorrect. Not only do we know that there is variation in the tail vane shape in rhamphorhynchoids (meaning that it’s not really more right or wrong to use a paddle vane or a triangular vane for anything outside of the scaphognathines or rhamphorhynchines) but adult Rhamphorhynchus probably don’t have a diamond tail.

It’s really time to ditch the diamond and I’d love to see some more illustrations of rhamphs without them. Sure, some Rhamphorhynchus had them, but probably not the adults that are most often illustrated and outside of that it’s hard to justify the use of the diamond all the time. Variety is, so we are oft told, the spice of life, so let’s see a bit of spice in those rhamphorhynchoid illustrations.

13 Responses to “Pterosaur tail vanes – a very rough diamond”

  1. 1 Jaime A. Headden 12/03/2010 at 3:44 pm

    How many Rhamphorhynchus specifically and how many other specimens of long-tailed pterosaurs had non-diamond-shaped tail vanes? Is there a taxonomic distribution potentially present in tail-vane shape?

    • 2 David Hone 12/03/2010 at 3:58 pm

      I don’t know becuase I’m not sure it’s ever been written down. It might be in the big index of Padian and Rayner, but I don’t have a copy to hand to check, sorry. Wellnhofer probably alkso covers it but I can’t read German. I can think of perhaps half a dozen or so that I have seen going through the bigger Solnhofen collections, and I suepct there are around 12-15 at least.

      Given that supposedly both Sordes and Pterorhynchus are scaphognathines (according to Dave Unwin at least) then that rather implies that this clade at least has a consistent vane morphology. However, if you go with the idea that Rhamphorhynchus is only one species and thus has a single ‘true’ adult tail vane morphology, then we have only three data points, and probably two of them in one family so it’s really hard to say how consistent this may or may not be. However, given then generally pretty conservative nature of pterosaurs, my guess is that they were quite similar within families. If anything, I’m a little surprised they aren’t more consistent. The paddle and triangle are really quite different.

  2. 3 Amin Khaleghparast 21/06/2013 at 11:21 pm

    Dr. Dave Hone
    Please add me as your friend in facebook….my friend request is block for a month.

    I told John Conway:
    “David Peters and Dr. Dave hone have similar agreement about a subject: Pteroid” did not attach to “Seasmoid” in Pterosaurs”

    Jon Conway answer me:
    “Complicated subject, but I think they’re both wrong. But seriously, stop reading stuff by Dave Peters, he makes stuff up and is crazy as a ferret. Yes I’m a friend of Dave Hone’s, but not from university (I’m Australian, I met Dave in 2007). But I think he’s wrong on this one”
    Yet, I respect to David Peters as polite man, protagonist that do not accept everything others accept without thought. yes some opinion are strange but logical yet….I think John Conway is a lovely friend, creative artist with wonderful knowledge but it is not good we insult others for their personal opinion. I think Dr. Mark Witton, John Conway and should pay attention to this subject.

    both Dr. Dave Hone and David Peters believed the Sesamoid and the Pteroid are two separate parts and useful in Flexion and Extension …but John Conway believed both them are wrong in this subject…Scott Hartman, John Conway and Mark Witton drew pterosaurs with a Pteroid attach to Sesamoid in their previous work. David Peters think such subject is a scientific mistake in Conway art and Conway think Peters do not enough knowledge for speak about Pterosaurs.

    Therefore, What is the fact? Do Sesamoid and the Pteroid are two separate parts or they attach each other? How and why?

    • 4 David Hone 23/06/2013 at 8:31 am

      Hi Amin,

      Sorry but I use Facebook to stay in touch with my friends, family and colleagues and you are none of these things. You can leave comments here or e-mail me if you want to ask questions, but fr me (if not many other people) FB is something private.

      As for the sesamoid in the wrist, I don’t remember saying anything about it in detail and is something I have not studied, so I’m really not the person to ask. The illustration you show is from Prondvai & Hone and while we do show the pteroid as separate from the sesamoid, revisiting this briefly, I don’t think this is contradictory to a pteroid being articulated on the sesamoid.

      Frankly if you have already asked several different people and read the necessary papers, asking me is not going to make much difference, you should come to your own decision. However, I do increasingly think the pteroid does more than likely does articulate on it.

  3. 5 Amin Khaleghparast 24/06/2013 at 8:52 pm

    okay…many thanks for your honest with me….I am understand and respect to your private space….however, I calculate you as my friend although you may have different emotion about an Asian man like me. foreign people may get some work positions of native people of England…therefore, I can understand if you do not have good feeling about foreign people…we have similar problem in my country, IRAN.

    about your text….you know I am a biologist and my personal information (because personal love to paleontology) is more than my degree and even Iranian professors….therefore, a little people have enough information for help me and others are more armature than me although they may be full professor….the real problem is enough experience…all of paleontologists do not study pterosaurs….through pterosaur experts, you(Dr. Dave hone) and your friends (Dr. Mark Witton and john Conway) have creative opinion and introduce new opinion about Pterosaurs….I appreciate your efforts.

    • 6 David Hone 24/06/2013 at 11:02 pm

      “however, I calculate you as my friend although you may have different emotion about an Asian man like me. foreign people may get some work positions of native people of England…therefore, I can understand if you do not have good feeling about foreign people”

      Err, you do rather seem to be implying I don’t like foreign / Asian people. Bear in mind I spent several years in China and have friends in China and Japan, as well as those originally from all over the world now in the UK. I’ll put this down to miscommunication, but you should be careful what you say about people.

      I do try to help, but I can’t do everything for all people all the time.

  4. 7 Amin Khaleghparast 24/06/2013 at 9:20 pm

    DEAR FRIEND, DR. Dave Hone!
    I really need to your personal opinion as a Pterosaurs expert.

    my Email:

    Now, I find The reason this question, “why did not any artists(even Scott Hartman, and Mark Witton, or John Conway) drew Dimorphodon skeleton in late decade”….because for shape of skull, tail vane exist a great variation and they prefer , do not play with such difficult enigma….However, I come into this play and I do not come back because drawing of Dimorphodon skeleton and correction of it every time got three month of my life completely.

    in your paper (An External mandibular fenestra and other archosauriform character states in basal Pterosaurs), you speak about Mandibular fenestrae for Dimorphodon different Padian’s paper…I am surprised if Dimorphodon had such hole in lower jaw, Why did Padian show lower jaw without hole….What is the fact? Do should I drew lower jaw without Mandibular fenestrae or with one? How and why?

    and What is physiological goal of such Mandibular fenestrae for Dimorphodon?

    Did such hole make Dimorphodon bite more strong than without it?

    Unfortunately, we have a variation about skull shape of Dimorphodon by different artists….I am really confused with such variation….Jaime Headen and David peters drew middle part of lower jaw nearly narrow like to wellnhofer art….Do you send me a correct picture about lower jaw of Dimorphodon?

    3- we have similar problems (variation) about bone details of skull (prefrontal, quandratojugal, postorbital, quadrate, Squamosal…) between four restorations of the dimorphodon skull of Owen(1870), Arthaber(1919), Wellnhofer(1978), and Wiman(1923)…. Which one of them give us the fact? Does other person try to make a reconstruction about Dimorphodon?

    Do you send me a correct picture about a skull of Dimorphodon with correct place of bone details?

    • 8 David Hone 24/06/2013 at 11:06 pm

      Hi Amin,

      Again, please realise I can’t do everything and don’t have the time to do everything and answer such endless detailed questions, especially when I know many other people are also helping you, please try and make fewer demands on everyone’s time.

      I know your English is not perfect, but if you read the Nesbitt & Hone paper you will see most of the answers are in there already. We discuss the varying interpretations of the mandibular fenestra in Dimorphodon (Padian illustrates it with and without at different times for example) and the origins of it (it’s an archosaur feature, presumed lost in pterosaur ancestros, but, according to our paper, potentially present in some basal pterosaurs). Since I know many people disagree with our interpretation I would say it is neither definitively correct to draw it with or without. I can’t send you any better photos than are in the paper and that also contains reconstructions of the skull, so you really are asking for things you already have.

      Good luck with your efforts.

  5. 9 Amin Khaleghparast 26/06/2013 at 11:27 am

    my dear brother, Dave Hone

    yesterday, I saw you, Scott Hartman and Mike Habib from Iranian TV for first time….I told to my parents, “oh my God, Iranian TV show my close friends”….I am very Happy….this program show us Mosasaurus childbirth, Qutzalcoatlus and several Triassic dinosaurs….your interview was very good …Scott with your long hair was really handsome in this program and you was relax and very kind in this program… Iranian TV Translate the program title : The Donosaurs Word”….But Do you know what is original name of this program? Was it for BBC?

    I am really happy for watching you, my nice friend, Scott. in Iranian TV

  6. 11 Amin Khaleghparast 26/06/2013 at 5:57 pm

    Dr. Dave Hone!
    I found the name of documentary…Dinosaur Revolution….you sit down and speak about Prehistoric animals in the end of documentary…”Dave Hone” subscript in your speaking Time.

  7. 12 Amin Khaleghparast 26/06/2013 at 6:05 pm

    Dear Dave Hone…you, Scott Hartman and Mark Habib were present in “Evolution’s Winners” episode of Dinosaur Revolution and Iranian TV show a Persian translation of this documentary yesterday.

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