Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How a giant ape nearly brought flightless pterosaurs to cinema screens


I've not kept it much of a secret that I’m a big fan of King Kong or, at least, the 1933 and 2005 versions (you can keep your ‘76 and Toho incarnations, thanks). There was something about the mythos of the film that excited me even before I had seen it so, when I was eight and my family saw the ’33 Kong being shown on late night TV, we grabbed it on video tape and I got up especially early before school to watch it. I only managed to see a brief glimpse of Kong himself before I had to leave for school, but that was enough to ensure that I resumed my viewing as soon as I got home. Almost 18 years later, I can still remember watching the charging Stegosaur for the first time, or that Brontosaurus chucking sailors around a swamp before chasing them up the tree. And, of course, the T. rex vs. Kong wrestling match, all framed by the wooden cabinet around our old TV and watched from our comfy blue sofa just left next to the patio door, with the heavy blue curtains closed to keep the glare off the TV.

Sometime later, my sister would record The New Adventures of Superman over virtually the entire thing and leave only Kong’s death atop the Empire State Building as my entire Kong experience. We’re still not talking.

Anyway, things turned out all right: I eventually got a proper copy of Kong and, hooray, Peter Jackson remade the original to generally great acclaim and success in 2005. Yesterday, my day was made when I received a copy of The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island, essentially being a collection of the creature and environment concept art for Jackson’s movie. Tell you what: Weta Workshop, the chaps behind the 2005 Kong special effects, really went to town with their ideas. They literally imagined an entire world, or at least an entire island, for their movie to be based in. In essence, they embarked on a big speculative zoology project, imagining what may have happened if Skull Island (the mysterious land that the explorers of the film er… explore) held a whole bunch of Mesozoic critters that survived the K/T extinction and continued to evolve. The film shows a handful of the more charismatic creations and environments, but there was buckets more that could’ve gone in. There’s nasty-looking fish, birds, worms and insects, several flying rats, all manner of theropods, ceratopsians and sauropods and even – get this – flying (not gliding) frogs. But they didn’t just go for wild and spectacular stuff: apparently fully immersed in their world, the chaps at Weta imagined the quieter, more sedate biota of Skull Island, including the inclusion of pretty-standard looking storks, egrets and herons in swamps and wetlands. But, and here’s the really cool bit, they also toyed with the idea of flightless, cormorant-like pterosaurs.

How cool would that have been? Secondarily flightless pterosaurs on film! And pterosaurs that are really, really far removed from those that we know and love! Sadly, it wasn’t to be but, still, it’s closer than almost any other film project I know of. Christened Axiciacephalus curia (see image at the top of this post; by Weta artist Johnny Brough), the Weta flightless pterosaur is around a metre long, has naked skin and bears long, low jaws filled with isodont, regularly spaced teeth. The nostrils are positioned far back along the jaw and on the dorsal surface of the skull. The neck and body are short but the tail is long, deep and muscular. Weirdly, the forelimbs are heavily modified into short, flipper-like appendages while the hindlimbs are elongate, three-toed and digitgrade. It’s meant to dwell around streams and live in a cormorant-like fashion, diving underwater and propelling itself along with its long legs. It really is very far removed from all things pterosaurian and, frankly, if it weren’t for the text, I would’ve thought it was some sort of weird theropod. Still, it deserves acclaim for being totally different (I thought my goat-tapejarids were good, but they’re blown out of the water here) and, moreover, a short-armed diving pterosaur may not be as crazy as you’d think.


And here’s why
For one thing, while pterosaur forelimbs are considerably more conspicuous than their hindlimbs, most pterosaur legs are not under-developed. As Padian (1983), Bennett (1997) and Habib (2008) have noted, they only appear small in contrast to the enormous heads and arms that characterise pterosaurs: they’re actually proportionate to the torso size and mechanically suited for powerful, leap-assisted takeoffs (Bennett 1997). Moreover, pterosaur swimming trackways indicate that they propelled themselves through water with their feet, not their hands (Lockley and Wright 2003; see adjacent image from the same paper. Illustration by Judy Peterson). Therefore, it’s not impossible to imagine a situation where a specialist wader pterodactyloid – a ctenochasmatoid, say – became secondarily flightless and, as wading turned to swimming, developed longer, more robust hindlimbs. Simultaneously, a diving animal would almost certainly reduce the size of its drag-inducing and now largely-useless arms, but still maintained some of their aerofoil properties for use as flippers. It’s a stretch, sure, and I’m not really sure the final product would look like Axiciacephalus, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

There's loads more we could say about this, but I don't really have the time. Still, it's pretty neat that flightless diving pterosaurs came close to being put on film and, actually, are a pretty groovy idea. In retrospect, you can see why Axiciacephalus didn’t make it into Kong 2005: although neat in its own way, it’s hardly as attention grabbing as the big tyrannosaurs, brontosaurs and gorillas that lived nearby. Certainly, it would’ve been a very different movie if Axiciacephalus and his more sedate chums had featured heavily. Anyway, must dash: I’ve got to go flip a giant pterosaur.

References

  • Bennett, S. C. The arboreal leaping theory of the origin of pterosaur flight. Historical Biology, 12, 265-290.
  • Habib, M.B. 2008. Comparative evidence for quadrupedal launch in pterosaurs. Zitteliana, B28, 161-168.
  • Lockley, M. G. and Wright, J. L. 2003. Pterosaur swim tracks and other ichnological evidence of behaviour and ecology. In: Buffetaut, E. and Mazin, J. M. (eds.) Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs, Geological Society Special Publication, 217, 297-313.
  • Padian, K. 1983. Osteology and functional morphology of Dimorphodon macronyx (Buckland) (Pterosauria: Rhamphorhynchoidea) based on new material in the Yale Peabody Musuem. Postilla, 189, 44 pp.
  • Weta Workshop. 2005. The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island. Pocket Books, London, 223 pp.

2 comments:

  1. I checked and that's the first time on the net someone has used the phrase "flip a giant pterosaur".

    Interesting post, enough that I've ordered the book. I don't like the big tail on the pterosaur-cormorant, though. It makes it seem, well, neither fish nor fowl. Combining the long-legged bipedalism and the diving lifestyle seems highly unlikely but I don't know enough about biomechanics (i.e. I know nothing!) to know if it would be possible. I was actually relieved to find the image wasn't yours. :-)

    Mike from Ottawa

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  2. The flying frogs of Skull Island don't exactly fly, rather they are able to beat their wings to slow their fall and glide from tree to tree. But it is still an interesting idea.

    What I found odd about this species is that it is the "only" species of pterosaur on Skull Island. You'd think there would be more. Of course, then you might have to explain why the pterosaurs never spread out from Skull Island and reconquered the world's skies in the Paleocene. Of course, then you have to explain why the giant rats haven't done it either. But its still an interesting and entertaining project.

    I wonder how much of a pterosaur's weight is supported by the forelimbs, because in order to end up with a wading bipedal pterosaur, you have to shift it from a quadrupedal to a bipedal stance. Maybe the pelvis could be more heavily built, or perhaps the wings could be retained as some sort of stilts in addition to fins to support the animal when it stands. Or the legs could be shifted forward into a frog-like crouching position.

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