Guest Post: Lessons from a first paper – New pterosaur fossils from the Early Cretaceous (Albian) of Queensland, Australia

I’m enjoying a flood of guest posts at the moment, and this is an especially nice on to see. I first met Tamara Fletcher in Munich as she hauled herself over from Australia to the Munich Flugsauirer to discover just what happens when you put 40 or 50 pterosaur researchers in a room for 3 days. However, not only did she survive, she went on to turn her poster into a full blow paper that has just come out. Oz is not exactly heaving with pterosaurs, but there are some, and Tam has been describing them. Here she takes us through them and getting them to print. A great lesson for budding researchers:

Being my first paper published, there are a huge number of little lessons I learnt from the process; from those I consciously recognize and reflect on, to those I’ll never know I never knew, and a few I wish I didn’t have to learn the hard way. Even though they may be old hat I have chosen a couple, that are always good to remember.

1. If it doesn’t seem to make sense, it might be because it really doesn’t.

When first starting out in a subject, it can be overwhelming. In my Honours year, in which I did the base work for this paper, I read over 500 articles. Many were standard descriptions, but others seemed to be written as persuasive pieces. There seems to be a specific (and secret) order in which papers need to be read to make sense. But in other cases, no matter how many times you read a group of papers, you just can’t figure out the hidden premises that have gotten them where they are.

Being a little under confident in my abilities, I was certain I just wasn’t getting it. There would be one incredibly important paper I had missed, or some hugely obvious point of widely recognized procedure I didn’t know about, but surely it was not the body of literature itself. When my supervisor came to have an in depth look at some of the issues I was having, I was relieved to find out, it wasn’t just me, it really didn’t make sense.

At this point the paper expanded in scope. Sorting out where and why some related studies became confused, became an important part of our paper. We think we have done a pretty thorough job of sorting out our little corner of Pterosaurology – but some small part of me is still waiting on that one paper we never read…

2. What we have, isn’t all there was.

A major part of the paper is comparing our specimens to known specimens, to determine affinities. The usual process for this is to use characters in an existing analysis, or to compare directly to other specimens. For us, individual comparison seemed necessary, as many analyses focus on the skull, rather than other skeletal elements.

Something that is often overlooked, though may seem obvious, is that we can only compare with material we have. So for example, we know Ornithocheirus existed, and it is diagnosed from cranial characters, but we don’t know much about the rest of its skeleton. Anhanguera is related to Ornithocheirus, but also has described skeletons. Although two of our wing specimens look much like specimens referred to Anhanguera, its important to realize that they could also look like Ornithocheirus.

Fragmentary Australian pterosaur specimens described in Fletcher and Salisbury 2010. A) Ornithocheiridae, gen. et. sp. indet., QM F44423, the ros- tral portion of a mandible from a late Albian Toolebuc-age equivalent formation east of Hughenden, central-western Queensland, Australia in dorsal aspect. B) cf. Anhanguera, QM F44321, the proximal end of a left metacarpal IV from the late Albian Toolebuc Formation northeast of Boulia, central-western Queensland, Australiain cranial aspect. C) cf. Anhanguera, QM F44312, the distal portion of a wing phalanx from late Albian Toolebuc Formation of Dunluce Station, between Hughenden and Richmond, central-western Queensland, Australia dorsal aspect. D) Ctenochasmatoidea, gen. et. sp. indet., QM F42739, proximal portion of left humerus from the late Mackunda Formation of Vellum Downs Station, approximately 100 km southwest of Hughenden, central-western Queensland in caudal aspect.

Having such an obvious example of this issue in my first project will hopefully help me keep this in mind throughout the rest of my career.

While our specimens aren’t going to wow the world with their preservation or completeness, we are pretty happy with our contribution to pterosaur research, adding a bit more, to the very little known about Australian pterosaurs. The recent increase in interest in Aussie pterosaurs, by a couple of established pterosaur researchers from overseas, should see even more coming out about this corner of the earth, hopefully pretty soon.

Fletcher, T. and Salisbury, S. W. 2010. New pterosaur fossils from the Early Cretaceous (Albian) of Queensland, Australia.  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30(6), 1747–1759. PDF available here.

2 Responses to “Guest Post: Lessons from a first paper – New pterosaur fossils from the Early Cretaceous (Albian) of Queensland, Australia”

  1. 1 mattvr 09/12/2010 at 9:49 am

    Great post Tamara. Your insights into process are a good read for us lay people.
    Nice as well to see Australia starting to make some inroads into that pretty blank canvas we have down here!

  1. 1 Guest Post: Introducing Aussiedraco « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 10/05/2011 at 10:56 am
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