Posts Tagged 'ontogeny'

Brunn – not the Solnhofen

At the end of my last post I raised a most significant point – Bellubrunnus isn’t a Solnhofen pterosaur. While it’s easy to think that those Jurassic lithographic beds from Bavaria are the Solnhofen, it’s not the case. Like all rock records, different divisions are known and are grouped in various hierarchical clusters. The Solnhofen is home to a lot of important species (Archaeopteryx for starters, not to mention all the pterosaurs and insects and plants and fishes) and a good deal of work has gone into working out the stratigraphy of all these different fossil-bearing beads, but not all lithographic limestones lie in the Solnhofen.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that an animal from one layer right above or below the Solnhofen didn’t overlap in time with other strata – the rocks don’t delineate when and where species lived. However, Brunn is rather older than even the oldest Solnhofen beds and from the Kimmeridgian rather than the Tithonian. While the rocks are of a similar kind and were put down in a similar manner in similar ecosystems, the two are different.

Work on the Brunn beds are still very new and I must confess I’ve not looked into it in any great detail (not least as all the literature seems to be in German) and have had to rely heavily on my colleagues here. Still, the two do seem to contain different taxa as a whole and while to date the higher vertebrates at Brunn have been few and far between, given the quality of the preservation, I don’t think there’s any reason to expect that we won’t get a lot more in the future. Moreover this does suggest that Brunn is different to the Solnhofen and so we might expect a different (if closely related) fauna to be present. In short, the fact that we now have literally hundreds of pterosaurs from the Solnhofen and no record of Bellubrunnus there, supports the idea that this is a different genus, and also the idea that there might be many more new pterosaur species in there to be found. At the very least, there is a lot more to learn from the Brunn biota.

One last point to address here lies in the temporal distribution of rhamphorhycnhines. The recently described Qinlongopterus is also known from a single, small, and young specimen, though it heralds from the Middle Jurassic of China. As described this taxon is really rather similar to Rhamphorhynchus and it was suggested that as such, the rhamphorhycnhines might be really rather stable as a group and went long periods of time with little morphological change. Obviously Bellubrunnus interrupts this apparent trend, as compared to the Middle Jurassic of China, it’s much closer in time and space to Rhamphoprhynchus, yet does have quite a few differences. This is probably due to that fact that unlike Bellubrunnus, Qinlongopterus is really badly preserved, and morphological information is rather limited. What can be seen in Qinlongopterus is very Rhamphorhynchus-like, but that’s not saying much since the condition of it means that not all the many details can be seen. Plus of course the young of species tend to be much harder to tell apart than the adults, since, well they don’t have all their adult features yet and typically the younger they are the harder that will be. So in fact this ‘stability’ is illusory based on the age and condition of Qinlongopterus and in any case is interrupted by the emergence of Bellubrunnus and its differing anatomy.

And on that subject, next up, that interesting tail…

Pterosaur ontogeny

 Not too long ago, Matt Wedel had an SV-POW! post that talked about ways of diagnosing an adult vs non-adult sauropod. Inspired by this and the fact that I have recently been playing around with issues of ontogeny in pterosaurs, I decided to write something similar for the non-avian Mesozoic fliers. If you have a pterosaur specimen in front of you, just how do you know if it’s an adult or not?

Obviously there are some general indicators that are pretty good for vertebrates as a whole that will get you quite a long way (even if this is a new species). Size is obviously rarely a great indicator, but if you have a pterodactyloid with a 20 cm wingspan then it’s going to be a juvenile, and likewise if you have a rhamphorhynchoid coming in close to the 2 m mark it’s very unlikely to be anything but a big adult. Young animals (and especially very young animals) tend to have big heads compared to their body and especially very big eyes compared to the size of the head. A bunch of fusions are absent in young pterosaurs that are present in adults too, just as you’d expect for most animals. The sutures between the centrum and neural arch of the vertebrae will be open in juveniles and closed in adults, and similarly the elements of the pelvis and sacrum, and the scapula and coracoid will be separate in young animals and fused together in adults.

Pterosaurs also have some characters of ontogenetic change that are rather more peculiar to them than vertebrates in general. Very young pterosaurs also tend to have a very grainy texture to the surfaces of their longbones, despite the fact that even embryonic pterosaurs have a pretty ossified set of bones (unlike many young animals). Smaller pterosaurs also tend to have various parts of the skeleton being less ossified and rather amorphous compared to those of adults. The tarsals are often not well ossified and can be missing (well don’t preserve) and if present may be very simple shapes. The carpals tend to look more ‘blobby’ and lack the detailed morphology seen in adults and will be separated into multiple elements whereas in adults the wrist will primarily be formed of just two massive elements (plus the pteroid). Finally, while obviously you would expect skulls to fuse up during ontogeny, pterosaurs do tend to take it one step further than most. Rather like birds, in adult pterosaurs the sutures all but disappear, or even go entirely, such that the skull looks like a single smooth piece of bone. Also as in some birds, bigger pterodactyloids have a notarium and this only fuses up and fully develops in adults. Similar to the point above about absolute size, the presence and development of some form of head crest is indicative, but not a great indicator of age. Yes a massive and elaborate crest in an animal is indicative that it’s an adult, but there could be a fairly well developed crest in an animal that is close to becoming and adult and of course there are taxa without crests and in at least once case it appears that females don’t have crests.

As in mammals, but unlike dinosaurs and birds, pterosaur also have epiphyses. The growing plates at the ends of the long bones physically separate the main shaft of the bone from the proximal and distal ends, so things like the femur can appear to be in three pieces. Obviously as growth slows towards maturity these epiphyses slowly disappear as they fuse into the single element that you would expect to see.

So in short, something that is small, with grainy textured bones, a big head, with big eyes, unossified tarsals, amorphous carpals, no crest, clear sutures in the skull, no notarium, and separated scapulocoracids, pelvis, epiphyses and neurocentral sutures is going to be a young juvenile. And the close these various features get to the opposite condition the closer the animal is likely to be to adulthood.

As ever with such things these are not absolutes, but merely guides. Good guides, certainly – you simply won’t see a notarium in a very young pterosaur, or open neurocentral arches in a big, old adult. However, in terms of determining more subtle difference in age it will be tricky – one animal may have fused up the notarium, but may have incompletely ossified tarsals and another could have the reverse. Although at least some characters do seem to have a bit of a pattern (the scapulocoracoid seems to fuse pretty early in most things) a general lack of numerous specimens of different ages makes it hard to do any more detailed analysis. Still, in terms of gross age (hatchling – young – adolescent – adult) even for a specimen of a previously unknown species with no obvious close relatives, it should be relatively easy to determine the approximate age of the animal.

Spotting ontogeny

I recently covered the issues of ontogeny for taxonomy but deliberately did not cover how one can spot the features of a skeleton which might indicate that it is not an adult saving it for here. As ever this discussion is based primarily around archosaurs, though astute observers will note that many of these are applicable to other clades as well, and that there are other features not covered here that can be of use (such as finding a new set of teeth in a mammal’s jaw strongly suggests that it is not yet an adult).

The following features vary in their useful ness and applicability and are best used in comparison to other animals in the same clade that are known to be juveniles or adults. Of course these are not always 100% accurate (or even close) as indicators of an animal being a juvenile or not, but nevertheless, taken in concert these can provide solid evidence that an animal was young, or an adolescent, or an adult. Continue reading ‘Spotting ontogeny’


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