Sunday, February 12, 2012

The top 5 most important pterosaur specimens

As usual when it's me on here, this is a repost from my blog. Still, if ever I wrote something that was made for Pterosaur.net this was it. So, here is something that does rather combine every aspect of pterosaur research into one neat package.


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.

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