How does David Attenborough crawl through a marshy Cycad forest toward an exposed rocky ledge overlooking a vast plain of grazing dinosaurs, drawing ever closer to a nesting colony of Quetzalcoatlus Pterodactlyoids (known in the business as “Flying Giraffes”) camera crew in tow, nearly out of breath, turning to the camera and speaking of how his adrenalin is surging as he can feel the breeze caused by wingbeats of one of the larger males taking off down an historically ancient Pterosaur runway, and noting a few interesting facts about their physical adaptations to flight and their behavior … when pterosaurs went extinct sixty-five million years ago?

By making 3D models of the beasts, then making a 3D model of himself, and then putting together a convincing script? Quite possibly. But there is more to it than that, as it turns out.

I had the rare and delightful opportunity the other day to chat with Sir David Attenborough about his new production, “Flying Monsters 3D.” I couldn’t help telling him right away that my daughter Julia is his biggest fan, which he seemed to appreciate. I get the impression that Sir David make all these nature documentaries for the audience and not for the pay or for himself. I told him that I had emailed Julia a couple of days earlier saying “You won’t believe whom I’m getting to interview on Monday. You’ll be Jealous” and that her reply shortly after consisted of two words: “David Attenborough?” (Honestly, she had no way of knowing or guessing other than the assumption that I knew who would make her most jealous.)

The main thing I wanted to ask Sir David about was the relationship between birds and Pterosaurs, or more specifically, how our knowledge of modern birds informed, or possibly even misled, our understanding of Pterosaurs. His answer was interesting, and it relates to two very large questions: 1) Why did Pterosaurs go extinct and 2) Is there real “Darwinian” competition between large taxa … can one kind of animal push another kind right off the Earth by being better at some thing or another? I’ve decided to NOT address either of those question in this post, however. Here, I’m going to pass on information about the film. Later, I’ll write about the whole bird-pterosaur thing. And, in a third post, I’m going to reveal a surprise for all of you. Something that you would only suspect if you really knew your paleontology, at an almost preternatural level. I’ll call the three posts (this one and the next two) the good, the bad, and the ugly. And now, on to the good stuff, about the movie.

“Flying Monsters” is written by David Attenborough and produced by Anthony Geffen, under the aegis of National Geographic Entertainment. The two of them cooked up this documentary while finishing up work on a different project. Attenborough had always been interested in pterosaurs, and the idea of a major 3D project was in the wind. It turns out that 3D filming is highly problematic. In our conversation earlier this week, Attenborough went through the litany of what you can’t do with 3D. The cameras are huge and require multiple strong people to move. The lenses take over an hour to change. Interestingly, 3D cameras really don’t work well with telephoto lenses. You can’t get close, and you can’t bring the shot in with optics. Also, the lenses are all fixed focus. Every time the shot requirs a closer or farther subject, there needs to be a lens change. And there are two lenses otherwise it wouldn’t be 3D. You can’t have a 3D camera crew in tow while you crawl up to some unsuspecting creature feeding in a forest glade. Given all this, pterosaurs made a lot of sense, because since they don’t exist to begin with, there are no worries about scaring them away or needing a telephoto lens.

One of the more interesting stories Attenborough had to tell was about a major shot in the flim in which he is seen flying in a glider along with a Pterosaur. I’ve seen the shot. They are flying over a European landscape. The glider and the Pterosaur have similar wingspans: about 40 feet. The glider, of course, does not flap its wings, but in truth, the pterosaur doesn’t much either. This is one of the likely adaptations of at least some of these creatures; They spent a lot of their time gliding with very little powered propulsion. Attenborough related the circumstances of getting this particular sequence. Obviously, the Pterosaur was created in a computer and added to the shot later, so what they needed to do was to film David Attenborough flying about in a glider, with the shot close enough that you could see his lips move while he talked about the pterosaur. No problem. All they needed was to mount the special 3D cameras on a helicopter and fly the helicopter right next to the glider (remember … telephotos are hard). Attenborough was concerned that the wake from the helicopter would cause difficulties, but he was assured that they had the most experienced chopper pilot around. After the shot was done, Attenborough recalls, the pilot seemed very pleased and a little surprised that everything went as well as it did!

(The original plan Attenborough had written into the script was for him to fly around in a large hang glider, with the pterosaur. The insurance company would not allow it, however. I guess hang gliders are expensive!)

Following, I’ve assembled some info provided to me by the producers about the main stars, and below that you can find information on when and where Flying Monsters 3D will be shown.

i-13986b81fbabe08e25026ff23f82a633-Dimo_4K-01-thumb-300x168-69292.jpgDIMORPHODON
Triassic Period – 200 million years ago

Size:

  • Wingspan: 3.9 feet (1.2 m)
  • Adult body length of 3.3 feet (1 m) long, with a wingspan of 3.9 feet (1.2 m)
  • Large, bulky skull approximately 8.7 inches (22 cm) in length
  • Weight was reduced by large cavities separated from each other by thin bony partitions.

Flight:

  • As a heavy bodied species with poor flight performance it would have had to fly fast to stay airborne. Although it was a flying species that would have spent time on the wing, its flights would have been relatively straightforward affairs.

Need to Know:

  • Earliest known pterosaur with a complete fossil.
  • Mary Anning made the first Dimorphodon (Dimorphodon macronyx) discovery, at Lyme Regis in Dorset, UK, in 1828.
  • Believed to have been an insect eater that lived in forests or on cliffs.
  • The ability to fly meant it could catch flying insects that other animals could not.
  • As a small animal, it would have spent much of its time high up in trees away from land-based predators. If it ever needed to make a quick escape, it could launch itself in the air and out of harm’s way.

i-d40cc045418f1b69766ad00420017324-Darwinopterus_COMP_V1-thumb-300x204-69294.jpgDARWINOPTERUS
Jurassic Period – 160 million years ago

Size:

Wingspan: 2.3 – 3.3 feet (0.7 – 1.0 m)
Skull Length: 5.5 – 7.5 inches (0.14 – 0.19 m)

Flight:

  • Darwinopterus still had a very basic pterosaur body plan. It still had a stiff long tail for stabilizing it in flight and a membrane between its legs to increase the surface area of its wings and help it stay aloft. However, it was a lighter build than Dimorphodon, and its legs had become significantly reduced to make it better suited to life on the wing.
  • Still clumsy on the ground, this animal, like all early pterosaurs, would have been an aerial predator. However, unlike the other early pterosaurs, this pterosaur had an advanced head that scientists would normally expect to find on a more highly evolved animal. This may have meant it was able to handle larger prey than just insects.

Need to Know:

  • There is a gaping evolutionary hole between the smaller, ancient pterosaurs and more modern ones, which grew to gargantuan proportions and, unlike their ancestors, could walk well. Darwinopterus jumps right into that gap. Its head is the kind you would expect to find on the later pterosaur; its body is very much the primitive kind. This finding was so surprising that Leicester University’s Dr. David Unwin et al. believe it may be evidence that some parts of the body can evolve much faster than others.

i-0ed66ca6eba110964ca4218bc83cc95c-Tapejara_body-thumb-300x168-69296.jpgTAPEJARA
Cretaceous Period – 115 million years ago

Size:

  • Skull length: about 17.3 inches (44 cm)
  • Skull height: 34.1 inches (86.6 cm)
  • Wingspan: 9.8 – 13.1 feet (3-4 m)

Flight:

  • Professor Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University has done the most research into Tapejara’s movements and behavior. Although many of his ideas about Tapejara’s flight and sailing ability remain hypothetical, they do present a number of surprising possibilities.
  • Much like a Transformer, Tapejara could manipulate its body to match the same configuration as the world’s fastest modern windsurfers and sail across the surface of the ocean in search of prey. Then, it could take off quickly if the toothy underwater predators of its time got too close for comfort.
  • Tapejara’s sailing ability has been investigated by studying the aero-hydrodynamics of pterosaur wings through physics and computer simulation.

Need to Know:

  • The basic design of Tapejara is a cross between two types of sailing vessels. The “hull” of the pterosaur is formed by dipping the breastbone into the water.
  • The two hind legs directed backwards function like lateral hulls. It is believed that this design allowed the animal to skate on top of the water. Other scientists have suggested a different theory, however: that the enormous head was not used as a sail but instead to mate.
  • The animals with the biggest and most spectacular head crest were able to demonstrate to a mate that they were the fittest individuals in the population.
  • There is some fossil evidence that these crest structures were striped with bold patterns, and that as with a peacock’s tail or a deer’s antlers, a female Tapejara may have assessed the quality of a male by looking at the size and beauty of their head crests. This helped them decide with whom to mate.

i-ab7b0cb277593f17f7051fc5bf2c3d6b-Quetz_Body-thumb-300x196-69298.jpgQUETZALCOATLUS
Cretaceous Period – 71 million years ago

Size:

  • Wingspan: 33-40 feet (10-12m)
  • Weight: 551 lbs (250 kg)
  • Height: Standing it would have been eye-to-eye with a giraffe.

Flight:

  • This animal, the biggest that has ever flown, got into the air with a single powerful push-up. The powerful flight muscles yanked down on a specially evolved barb made from bone to catapult an animal the size of a giraffe from a standstill to 10 feet (3m) off the ground and to a speed of 35 mph in a single motion.
  • Like a jumbo jet, this animal’s large size meant it could carry more fuel and cover greater distances. As a large animal, it was also less susceptible to turbulence and powerful gusts of wind. Scientists think it would regularly have covered 400 miles a day and would have been capable of transcontinental migrations.
  • The enormous flight muscles were designed to give explosive bursts of power that carried Quetzalcoatlus to high altitude, where it could then act as a glider, traveling for hundreds of miles without a single flap. Only recently have humans been able to make airplanes that can glide as efficiently as this animal.

Need to Know:

  • This animal had an enormous beak, 8 feet (2.5 m) long, which it used to eat small animals whole.
  • The toothless beak evolved separately from birds to serve the same purpose. Its beak provides a strong, lightweight tool for eating.
  • Once in the air, this animal traveled at speeds of up to 80 mph.
  • Quetzalcoatlus’s small feet and long legs have led scientists recently to believe that this animal acted like a huge stork. It would have spent plenty of time walking around on the ground using its keen eyesight to spot small animals, which it could snatch and eat.

About “Flying Monsters 3D”
In “Flying Monsters 3D,” world-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough immerses audiences in a prehistoric world to explore on the giant screen the story of pterosaurs, the mysterious group of giant winged vertebrates that ruled the skies while dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Produced by award-winning Atlantic Productions in association with Sky 3D, and distributed by National Geographic Entertainment’s Cinema Ventures, the film is opening worldwide in giant-screen theaters and digital 3-D cinemas throughout 2011. It is scheduled to premiere across several cities in North America on Oct. 7, 2011.

Comments

  1. #1 Roland
    September 20, 2011

    We know there were giant dragonflies (2′ wingspan) when the O2 content of the atmosphere was as high as 40%–was that Triassic? That would feed an insect eater with a 4′ wingspan (Dimorphodon). But do we know if atmospheric density was higher in the past? How could that be determined? It would certainly make flight easier.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    September 20, 2011

    Yes, O2 peaked at about 320 mya, then dropped to way below current levels, then went up to a second peak in the late Cretaceous.

    The Triassic actually started out as a lower O2 and ended, I think, with modern levels.

    I’m not sure if there is a convincing argument regarding atmospheric thickness. I’ll put that on my list of things to as Don Prothero when I interview him in a few weeks.

  3. #3 Matt Kimber
    September 21, 2011

    If you like pterosaurs, have a look at pterosaur.net (http://www.pterosaur.net/) which is maintained by a group of professional paleontologists with a primary interest in pterosaurs. Mark Witton’s flickr photostream (http://www.flickr.com/photos/markwitton) while now a little inactive has loads of really impressive paintings (such as the now classic Quetzalcoatlus next to a giraffe picture) as well as a lot of fun and technically very well informed discussion. He also has a book coming out very soon that promises to be _the_ book for appreciating the shear awesomeness of these animals.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    September 21, 2011

    Matt, do you happen to know if there is going to be an English edition of Mark’s book? This one seems to be available now: Pterosauriers: Vliegende tijdgenoten van de dinosauriers (Dutch Edition)

  5. #5 Matt Kimber
    September 21, 2011

    Hi Greg
    According to Mark’s website, the book will be published next year (http://www.markwitton.com/#/pup-pterosaurs/4552905946). Amazon.com apparently does not yet have the book up for pre-order. He does have a chapter list, sample chapter and artwork excerpts up though. The book description, pasted below, hints at why this book is going to be important, but a quick glance at Dr. Witton’s artwork tells you that it is also going to be stunning.

    “Despite 220 years of study, flying reptiles have received little attention from the popular press. Only three truly comprehensive, popular books dedicated to pterosaurs have been published in this time, and only one this century, meaning much of the recent ‘Pterosaur Renaissance’ – the current surge in pterosaur discoveries and research beginning in the late 1980s – remains untold outside of the technical literature.

    Pterosaurs, published by Princeton University Press, is an attempt to plug this obvious gap in popular scientific writing. Fully referenced and richly-illustrated, it documents pterosaur palaeobiology and diversity in a manner not attempted for over 30 years. Overviews of pterosaur evolution, anatomy, functional morphology and taxonomy are presented through 100,00 words and 200 illustrations spread across 26 chapters. “

  6. #6 a+
    September 21, 2011

    I’m also jealous. Please, if you ever speak again with Sir David: tell him he’s the hero of hundereds of biologists.

    His documentaries are not only breathtaking visually. I have seen stuff filmed by his team which is not at all in scientific literature, e.g., the pollination of Amorphiphallus titanum. (And, by the way, the Aroideana piece about this short film is pure gold.)

  7. #7 Daniel J. Andrews
    September 30, 2011

    Also quite jealous, and ditto Sir David being the hero of hundreds–nay–tens of thousands of biologists (as well as many other people too). I have hoped to meet him for a very very long time, but the rare times he comes to Canada, I’m not around.

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