The top 5 most important pterosaur specimens

Just an idle bit of fun this, but the thought was running through my head and I thought there was a blog post in there somewhere so decided to have a go at it. All very subjective of course and hard to assess but there are issues of completeness, importance, the scientific information held or conveyed by the material and other things. Anywhere, here’s my effort at least (in no particular order):

1. The Dark Wing Rhamphorhynchus.

Specimens from the Solnhofen are not uniquely flat, but the vast majority are compressed into two dimensions. The sheer number of Rhamphorhynchus specimens means that we do have a great understanding of their anatomy and ontogeny, even if it is 2D and there are lots of specimens with bits of soft tissues or unusual details preserving. This specimen though pretty much has it all. It’s complete, the bones are nearly entirely in 3D and it comes with a magnificently preserved set of wing membranes – easily the best out there. Stick all that together and it’s a hell of a specimen.

 2. Jeholopterus holotype

Sure Sordes is nice and already covered in pycnofibers, but Jeholopterus is much the better preserved with more details of both ptero-fuzz and the wings. As a bonus it’s by far the best preserved anuroganthid specimen (well in total, the juvenile Anuroganthus is magnificent but has no softs), an otherwise badly known but potentially very important group.

3. The Tokyo Anhanguera

Probably the single most complete and 3D specimen I know of. Sure there are a few bits missing, but unlike the dark-wing, every bone is free of the matrix and can be picked up, turned around, examined from every angle and checked. Sadly it’s a juvenile and so some of the features aren’t quite what they would be at adult, but it is one hell of a specimen for the actual gross skeletal anatomy.

4. The Darwinopterus + egg combo

This one is a bit fortuitious since it does rather let me get a two-for-one with both a transitional pterosaur (and just how significant that is for a number of reasons) and gives us a bona fide pterosaur egg. Each tells us so much about pterosaurs and pterosaur evolution, it’s an incredible animal.

5. The big Quetzalcoatlus.

Every specimen can tell you something, and there are surprises everywhere. The new Nyctosaurus and Thalassodromeus revealed how huge crests could get, the series of ‘Tapejara’s told us about the integration of soft tissues, Raeticodactylus served a warning about eudimorphodontid-like teeth for taxonomy. But head and shoulders over all of this is the giant specimen of Quetzalcoatlus (even if it isn’t yet properly described). Size is such a crucial aspect of the biology of any organism, but in this case it is simply so big and in a flying animal too, that it really was almost a gamechanger for our understanding of pterosaurs in their own right. That a flying animal could get this big was a shock (despite some of the wild estimates, 10 m is bloody massive!).


And to close out, a few near misses from the list: footprints that showed us how they walked, the Pterodactylus holotype which brought pterosaurs to the world, one of the embryos which proved they did lay eggs and gave us a window into their life history.



10 Responses to “The top 5 most important pterosaur specimens”

  1. 1 Dagmar 10/02/2012 at 12:15 pm

    The Tokyo Anhanguera link is giving me a totally different picture….not any kind of pterosaur!

    • 2 David Hone 10/02/2012 at 12:20 pm

      Works fine for me. That is a pterosaur skull, moreover it is that pterosaur skull.

      • 3 Dagmar 10/02/2012 at 10:05 pm

        Wow,totally not what I expected!

      • 4 David Hone 10/02/2012 at 10:39 pm

        Well it is at an odd angle looking half along the skull so the teeth look super large and the orbits etc. are obscured but it’s real. Been looking online for a ‘proper’ photo of the specimen and can’t find one unfortunately.

  2. 5 Pete Ross 11/02/2012 at 4:57 pm

    How much of that Quetzalcoatlus is reconstructed?

    • 6 David Hone 11/02/2012 at 5:24 pm

      Well none of it is real and I don’t think there’s even any cast in there. But I guess that ultimately your real question is how much of the original is known. I know there’s a good wing and large chunks of skull but after that I’m really not sure, sorry.

  3. 7 Joseph B 13/02/2012 at 4:24 am

    The huge crests of the new Nyctosaurus and Thalassodromeus may well be explained by just published physics results that demonstrates that balance during hovering is easier achieved with top-heavy structures.

    “It works somewhat like balancing a broomstick in your hand,” explained Jun Zhang, a Professor at the Courant Institute and one of the study’s co-authors. “If it begins to fall to one side, you need to apply a force in this same direction to keep it upright.”

    Bin Liu, Leif Ristroph, Annie Weathers, Stephen Childress, Jun Zhang. Intrinsic Stability of a Body Hovering in an Oscillating Airflow. Physical Review Letters, 2012; 108 (6) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.068103

    Hope this helps.

    • 8 David Hone 13/02/2012 at 8:28 am

      Obviously I don’t have the paper, but this seems really rather unlikely for such big animals. Large animals like these can’t power hover (i.e. like hummingbirds or kingfishers do) so it wouldn’t be of any use, and while these animals probably could over in an airstream (i.e. like haws or gulls do) it’s have to be very strong wind. In short, I doubt these animals could hover very much, so it seems most unlikely to me that they’d evolve and carry around these huge structures all their lives to make occasional hovering a bit more stable.

  4. 9 Joseph B 13/02/2012 at 10:50 pm

    Sure, hovering agreed would not be possible. I should have clarified that the “hovering in an oscillating airflow” experiment was designed to simulate air moving over the beating wings of bottom- mid- and top-heavy flying insects. The implication being that such balancing effects (due to heightened weight distribution, and not just a rudder effect) may be similarly experienced by crested pterosaurs (and aircraft) during flight and/or gliding. Crests just appear to be way too common and varied a feature to not have provided some/significant advantages during flight.

    • 10 David Hone 28/05/2012 at 3:47 pm

      “Crests just appear to be way too common and varied a feature to not have provided some/significant advantages during flight.”

      Unless they’re under sexual selection of course. And I think the opposite is true – if they were under functional selection they would probably converge on some specific form (or a limited number of them). There is so much difference between things like the different Pteranodon species and Nyctosaurus (depsite their near identical ecologies) and between say Thalassodromeus, Austriadactylus and Ornithocheirus that it’s hard to imagine a single or limited function could explain all of it. Look at how things like fins or horns converge on limited shapes that relate to function.

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