Tetrapod Zoology

In Maple White Land on March 14th

i-14646209e8bc228d75bc14085091f651-Witton does Conan-Doyle.jpg

Tomorrow morning I leave for that conference. One last thing before I go…

Some of you will know that I am a close personal chum of Mark Witton: pterosaur worker, expert illustrator, meeter of David Attenborough and all round good egg. Mark’s astronomical rise to fame is due, not to his visit to the house of Our Majesty, nor to his various appearances in the national press, and least of all not to his half-hearted effort to grow a beard. Rather, it is due to his world-famous ground-breaking flickr site. What started as a random collection of photos taken by an undergraduate student on his various field trips turned into a showcase for new and vibrant works of art. And what started as a random assortment of black and white sketches turned into a colourful panoply of daring life restorations of pterosaurs and dinosaurs, and then even to depictions of scenes from famous books. I’m talking War of the Worlds, Dracula, and The Call of Cthulhu. Belatedly indeed, I’ve just learnt that March 14th was that most special of days, when – as one – we could gladly proclaim (to use Mark’s words) Happy 1st Birthday to Mark Witton’s bodacious Flickr site. To celebrate, Mark produced the adjacent piece of work. Like the best works of Max Ernst, you will note that the figures therein might look strangely familiar.. and for the full story on that you’ll need to read what Mark himself had to say. Accompanying the art is a wistful look back at the year that has passed.

Sorry I missed the celebration Mark, and belated happy flickrversary!


  1. #1 Mark Witton
    March 22, 2007

    Aw, shucks… (wipes tear from eye).

    This makes up for all those sneaky Tetrapod Zoology links you covertly add to almost any picture I do. Well, almost.

    Seriously, thanks very much – looks like I owe you a beer.

  2. #2 Sir David Attenborough
    March 22, 2007

    Several, I’d say.

  3. #3 Darren Naish
    March 22, 2007

    Should I get libelled for illegal impersonation, I should add that the previous comment wasn’t really penned by Sir David. Sorry about that. But bring on those beers.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    March 22, 2007

    Shouldn’t that be “flickrvrsry”?

  5. #5 DDeden
    March 23, 2007

    I say old chap, that’s a bit rich… S.D.A.??

    Enjoy the Conference.

    Stunning picture at top!


  6. #6 Sarda Sahney
    March 23, 2007

    Neat picture, glad the Flickr site is doing well, it is great! Have fun at the conference.

  7. #7 DDeden
    March 24, 2007

    Mark, beautiful pictures. Do many of the variety of pteradon types show signs of long distant seasonal migrations, as in waterfowl of today? That would provide a great advantage, allowing a virtually tropical animal to expand to the cold latitudes during summer. Seems many were carnivorous or piscivorous, but I’d think many could have been insectivorous or had mixed habits. Are there some that fed mainly on vegetation? You drew fur on some, is there fossil indications of that (excluding whiskers)? The furry neck (and abdomen?) makes sense.

  8. #8 John Hopkin
    March 24, 2007

    Darren – a bit late posting this, but in the off-chance that you’re going to check the message boards while you’re away for the conference, a tip from a local:

    If you come out of the Dorchester and turn right, there’s a side-street ending in a rather glorious arch, with a nice park behind the arch. An ideal place to get some fresh air.

    And if you continue more or less straight on, and head for the more populous end of the park, you’ll come across what should be a duck-pond, but is in effect a hole with mud in it (there’s a leak, and the Council can’t fund a project to locate and repair the leak). Turn left, and there’s a white-painted heated conservatory. In there, there’s a modest collection of tropical birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, as well as many plants. A nice way to spend half an hour or so looking at critters.

    Sorry if this is too late to be of any help.

  9. #9 David Marjanovi?
    March 24, 2007

    Do many of the variety of pteradon types show signs of long distant seasonal migrations, as in waterfowl of today?

    What do you mean by “pteradon”?

    If you mean “pterosaur” as a whole — no, but then there’s no way we could find such evidence unless we had very large amounts of fossils of one species. Otherwise the best we can find is a large geographical distribution.

    That would provide a great advantage, allowing a virtually tropical animal to expand to the cold latitudes during summer.

    Outside of those latitudes that experience polar night, there weren’t any really cold latitudes even in winter.

    Seems many were carnivorous or piscivorous, but I’d think many could have been insectivorous

    Yes, most obviously the anurognathids.

    or had mixed habits. Are there some that fed mainly on vegetation?

    None have been found so far with herbivore’s teeth, and among the toothless ones there are only two that have ever been suggested to have eaten fruits or conifer cones or the like; even that is likely wrong.

    You drew fur on some, is there fossil indications of that (excluding whiskers)?

    Whenever pterosaurs are found in a type of rock that allows it, hair is preserved on them. That’s rare, of course, but it has been known to occur for quite some time now. For the most spectacular example, let Google find you a photo of Jeholopterus.

  10. #10 Mark Witton
    March 24, 2007

    Firstly, thanks to all of you who’ve said nice things about my work – much appreciated.

    DDeden, David’s already answered the main points you’ve raised, but to expand a little on some of them:

    Migrating pterosaurs: the euornithocheiroids, things like Pteranodon, Anhanguera and Nyctosaurus have wing characteristics similar to those of pelagic seabirds around today. These critters were, therefore, probably capable of flying long distances over water and could, I suppose, have been migratory. However, there is no evidence that any pterosaur migrated. In fact (and please correct me if I’m wrong), I can’t think of any convincing evidence to suggest that any fossil animals migrated. Of course, that’s not to say they didn’t, but interpreting such behaviour is difficult from the patchy fossil record.

    Pterosaur diets: All the preserved pterosaur gut content we have shows the pterosaurs in question ate fish. However, this almost certainly doesn’t apply to all pterosaurs as there is tremendous diversity in skull shape, dentition and jaw structure that, presumably, reflects different trophic preferences and foraging strategies. As already mentioned by David, there are no folivorous pterosaurs: folivores, even volant ones like hoatzins, geese and swans, have big guts to facilitate digestion of plant matter. To date, there are no pterosaurs known with disproportionally large bodies necessary for a big gut. In fact, pterosaur bodies are all pretty small, particularly in the case of the Brazilian form Arthurdactylus: this critter, known from complete material (minus the neck and skull) is reported to have a wingspan of c. 4 m and a body of (get this) 9 cm. As such, pterosaurs probably focused on highly nutritious, easily digested food: meat and, controversially, fruits. If you’re interested, take a look at the pterosaur pictures at this most excellent website (particularly the later ones at the bottom of the set) and you can read some of my thoughts on what various pterosaurs did for a living.

    Pterosaur fur: Apparently, pterosaur fuzz is distributed like bat hair – across the torso, proximal regions of the limbs and around the neck and head (but not the snout). As David has already pointed out, you should look up Jeholopterus, but also check out Sordes – a specimen of this animal was the pterosaur integument deal clincher, so to speak. For the record, pterosaur ‘hair’ is not like mammalian hair. According to Dave Unwin, pterosaur integument is solid and not anchored particularly deeply, unlike ours which is anchored beneath the skin and hollow. This might mean that pterosaurs could not control the thickness of their fur in the way that we can (you know, the old ‘puff the fur up to trap more warm air trick when we’re cold trick’ and vice versa). So yes, pterosaurs were furry, but, just to clarify, the long hairs and beards seen on my pterosaur restorations are the result of too much coffee and a reflection of the fact that many of the most flamboyant structures in modern reptiles (including birds) do not lend themselves well to fossilisation. I do try to fit them in with their supposed lifestyles: the possibly frugivorous Tapejara might have afforded a slightly more elaborate look than, say, Dimorphodon: elaborate hairstyles might have inhibited the predatory lifestyle of the latter but not bothered the former.

    Right, that’ll do for now.

  11. #11 DDeden
    March 24, 2007

    Yes, Pterosaurs I meant. Thanks David.

    Incredible diversity among the Pterosaur head gears. Awesome.


  12. #12 Mike
    March 26, 2007

    Anyone with even a passing interest in pterosaurs owes it to themselves to get a copy of ‘The Pterosaurs: From Deep Time‘ by David Unwin. Our absent host himself has expressed the view that every group of tetrapods should be so lucky as to have a book like that done on it.

    And Mark deserves all the plaudits for his work. To me they look like watercolours out of the sketchbook of a naturalist living at the time.

  13. #13 Mark Witton
    March 26, 2007

    Thanks to those saying ever-so-nice things about my pictures – much appreciated.

    DDeden: I did write a comment answering your questions on Saturday, but it appears to have gone missing. All the same, David Marjanović appears to have said pretty much what I was going to say, so I won’t repeat him.

    And if you like crazy pterosaur headgear, please check out this (and, heck, why not contrast it with this).

  14. #14 Mark Witton
    March 26, 2007

    Cuh: NOW my first post appears. Typical.

  15. #15 Darren Naish
    March 26, 2007

    Thanks to everyone for their comments: I’m (obviously) now back from the conference, so no more unmoderated comments!

    John: your message did come too late for me to see it (and I had no internet access while away). However, on Sunday morning I left the Dorchester to find a cashpoint/ATM. I wrongly turned right (contra instructions) and walked down a side-street. I came to a glorious white arch: thought about photographing it, but didn’t. Came to a park. And then I realised I’d turned the wrong way and headed back to Beverley Street (if I remember its name correctly). So, sadly, I never got to the collection you mention, nor did anyone mention it. Dammit, I wish I’d known, and thanks for telling me. How do you know Hull so well?

    Mark: for an unknown reason the scienceblogs publishing platform classifies your posts as ‘junk’ and files them away. That’s why – unlike the other comments – they didn’t appear in my absence. I have no idea why this is and no control over it, though as soon as I see them I publish them of course. You’re in select company: this does happen to other people’s messages too.

  16. #16 John Hopkin
    March 27, 2007

    Shame you didn’t read the message until too late, Darren – my fault, because I’d meant to post earlier in the week and simply forgot.

    I know Hull so well because I’ve lived here pretty much all my life – in fact, I now live very close to the park (if I’d been able to, I’d certainly have attended the conference myself). It’s called Pearson Park, by the way, and the road you mention is Beverley Road, for what it’s worth.

    To me, the coolest critters they have in that conservatory – even more so than the snakes and lizards – are three axolotls, the only ones I’ve ever seen in the flesh. Weird, unearthly animals.

    I’m looking forward to reading about what went on at the conference – it sounds like it was a very interesting weekend.

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