Immediately after the Munich pterosaur meeting ended in 2007, I moved to Beijing to take up a postdoctoral position at the IVPP. Perhaps the first bit of mail I has there was from the now late Wann Langston thanking me for setting up the Munich Flugsaurier (which he had attended) and sending me a photocopy of his notes and some old photographs he’d taken on a trip to China back in the 80s. This was of a superbly preserved pterosaur hindlimb, and one he wanted to know more about but which had since not been seen by any researcher he knew, or been in the literature.
This was a specimen of Noripterus, a small dsungaripterid from China found by, and then named by, C.C. Young back in 1973. The original description of this was both a bit sparsely described, and in Chinese which is a shame as Young mentions a number of specimens, and illustrates or measures only part of some of them. I asked around the curators at the IVPP but no one knew the location of the material and it was suggested to have been borrowed and not returned.
Fast forward a couple of years and while Paul Barrett was visiting the IVPP he had been directed by a colleague to a little used set of cabinets in the collection, where apparently some mislaid dinosaur material was residing. I happened to be looking over a specimen in the collections at the time so inevitably was keen to see what might turn up. On opening the case, Paul found his specimens, but one thing I spotted was immediately recognisable from Wann’s photos – the lost Noripterus foot. Accompanying it was quite a lot of other pterosaur specimens with similar specimen numbers – Noripterus was back.
Since then I’ve been working on and off on a number of projects on these specimens (hampered by my no longer being in China) and the first is finally out as part of the volume from the back of the 2015 Flugsaurier meeting in Portsmouth. A more full description is in the work but this is the first and important step because the taxonomy of the Asian dsungaripterids has been an issue that’s been problematic for quite a while, and much of it hinges on Noripterus.
Things have been difficult to resolve because as noted, the original description doesn’t give that much information on the material (and less if you don’t speak Chinese – I am indebted to my collaborators here as you may imagine). If you want to sort out how various other species and genera relate to it (or not) you really need to know what it actually is anatomically and taxonomically, and so having the specimens available means we can make some significant updates to Young’s identification and how other more recent discoveries might relate to it.
First off the bad news – what was originally designated as the holotype is mostly still missing. Only a fragment of the jaws remain and they are not in great condition. Still, they are diagnostic which helps us to define Noripterus better. On the good news side of things, there is a lot of nice associated material as Young collected multiple specimens from just a few sites and despite the lack of overlap in some areas, there’s some good reasons to think they are all the same thing. Noripterus is known from several superbly preserved specimens including a near complete set of limbs and girdles preserved in 3D. There will be more on this in the future, but obviously it’s very useful material to have.
Working out quite which specimen was which however actually took quite some time and detective work. The field numbers on the bones and the specimen numbers on the boxes they were in, did not always line up with the identities given in Young’s paper (either illustrations or the few measurements). Eventually though we got this sorted out and so one part of the paper gives some new specimen numbers and sorts out the various specimens into their (hopefully) correct sets.
The main issue though is the taxonomy itself of these animals. Noripterus was only the second dsungaripterid identified (you may not be shocked to learn Dsungaripterus was the first) and so it might not be a surprise that it’s considered a valid taxon. It is rather smaller than it’s more famous relative, and has straight rather than curved jaws, as well as rather more narrow teeth. That’s the easy bit.
Then we have ‘Phobetor’ from Mongolia, named from some very fragmentary material that has never been described in detail. More recently there’s more Mongolian stuff from 2009 called the ‘Tatal pterosaur’ that was used to link together that material, ‘Phobetor’ and Noripterus all under the latter name. On top of that we have the Chinese genus Longchognathosaurus known from little more than a few bits. Clearly lining these up and working out if there were one, two or three genera was going to prove difficult while 2 of these 4 sets of specimens were fragmentary and most had never been described or illustrated properly. In this context, getting to see Noripterus was clearly very useful in terms of making some meaningful comparisons of key characters.
So, what did we find? Well, actually the Tatal material and the original ‘Phobetor’ are very similar based on the limited descriptions of each suggesting they are the same taxon. However, they have some consistent differences with the Noripterus material which suggests they represent a valid and separate genus and should not be synonymised with it. That also means that ‘Phobetor’ is still lacking a name (it’s preoccupied by a fish). Finally, Longchognathosaurus has at least a couple of the supposedly diagnostic characters present in the holotype of Noripterus and while it’s not necessarily the same thing, it is hard to justify it being unique at this point.
Clearly all of this is provisional, and lacking a good skull for Noripterus (or at least the rest of the holotype) would really help firm all of this up, not least when the Tatal specimens include a good skull and Longchognathosaurus is based mostly from cranial material. In fact given how much good Noripterus material there is, it is an oddity that there’s so little of the head, but hopefully more will turn up. In the meantime, this should help move things forwards and provide a better basis for sorting out these taxa and some curiosities about their relationships to other pterosaurs (in particular Germanodactylus which may or may not be an early dsungaripterid). Now we just need some more detailed descriptions of all the other Asian dsungaripterids (and yes, more on Noripterus too) but this is a start.
TLDR: We have a good amount of Noripterus back. ‘Phobetor’ is probably separate and valid and the same thing as the ‘Tatal pterosaur’ material. Longchognathosaurus is probably not valid.