Thursday, May 29, 2008

A startling new view of pterosaurs

A scientific paper published by Darren Naish and Mark Witten argues that the largest of the Mesozoic pterosaurs, or "flying reptiles," had a lifestyle that contradicts nearly every book and documentary ever produced on the topic.
Naish and Witten say the normal view of giant pterosaurs like Hatzegopteryx (10-meter wingspan) as creatures which skimmed the water's surface plucking out fish is contradicted by their anatomy. Their necks were stiff, almost rigid, which makes them useless for reaching down into the highly resistant medium of water and grabbing fish while the animal was still flying forward: the neck would break. The authors also didn't think they were well designed for carrion feeding, wading, or other proposed lifestyles. Instead, they spent much time on the ground, walking in the manner of gigantic quadrupedal storks as they plucked prey animals from the ground. The biggest would have stood nearly as tall as giraffes when they stalked the plains like (as an episode of Blackadder once put it) "giant stalking things."
The authors are careful to note the idea is not entirely original with them, but they've developed it in more depth than anyone else. On the Tetrapod Zoology blog, which includes links to the original paper and some articles about it, Darren and others have patiently answered my questions about this seemingly counterintuitive theory, explaining how the animals could still launch quickly into the air, survive reasonable damage to those seemingly vulnerable wing membranes, etc.
I can't say I'm convinced on every point, but the authors have certainly thought this thing through and are sticking by their guns. Read it: agree or disagree, you'll find you never think about pterosaurs the same way again.
Congratulations to the authors for a truly fascinating "out of the box" contribution to one of palentology's long-running debates.

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