I’ve caught up on my sleep; I’ve watched the Star Wars trilogy and The Wicker Man; I’ve listened to at least one Kate Bush album (well, two.. ok, three); and I’ve spent an appropriate amount of time catching up with my family (on Sunday we went to Longleat Safari Park). While it’s true that I have thoughts on three quite different conferences to report, I thought that I’d start by writing about the one that’s freshest in my mind – and, anyway, I have to write up a proper article on this specific conference for publication, so it helps if I do this now. As readers will know (first thoughts here), I returned over the weekend from the Peter Wellnhofer Flugsaurier conference, held at the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie (Bavarian State Palaeontological Collection – BSPG). What happened at the meeting? Hey, I’ll tell you what happened…
Well, actually, I’m not going to review everything: there were about 28 talks at the meeting, and I don’t know how many posters. Instead I’m only really going to cover my personal highlights, though I will at least try and allude in the loosest sense possible to the other stuff. Talks were broken down into systematics and taxonomy, diversity and ecology, anatomy and physiology, skulls, wings, flight and locomotion and ‘other areas of research’. Discussion sessions covered functional morphology and taxonomy and systematics.
Beginning with the systematics and taxonomy section, Brian Andres provided an overview of how the competing schemes on pterosaur phylogeny match up. Dave Peters provided a whistle-stop tour of his unique view of pterosaur diversity and phylogeny. For those that don’t know, Dave uses a ‘photo-interpretation’ technique to discover various details of anatomy, both in pterosaurs and in diverse other reptiles. There is, to put it mildly, a general feeling of scepticism that what he reports accurately reflects morphology, but he has claimed the discovery of bizarre dorsal frills and enormous soft-tissue cranial crests, multiple hitherto-unseen babies, novel details of dentition (even in taxa universally regarded as edentulous), and much else besides. Dave has then used these new details to produce an entirely novel phylogeny – radically different from that generated by any other pterosaur worker. He argues that pterosaurs cannot be (yes, ‘cannot be’) ornithodirans or archosaurs, but are in fact lizards. Anyway, he packed all of his discoveries into one talk: fast, intense, very alternative [adjacent image shows the BSPG Pteranodon sculpture, made by Peter Wellnhofer].
Taissa Rodrigues discussed the systematics of Coloborhynchus and Anhanguera: both are similar keel-crested ornithocheiroid pterosaurs and, while some authors (e.g., Fastnacht 2001) have opined that at least some (perhaps all) Anhanguera species should be sunk into Coloborhynchus, Taissa argued that the type species of the two genera are different enough for the two genera to be kept apart. It’s a pretty complex subject that I won’t explain in greater depth: I will be working on Coloborhynchus at some stage in the future (thanks to a new specimen of the type species C. clavirostris), so will return to it then.
Last year, Dave Martill and I argued that both Tupuxuara leonardii and Thalassodromeus sethi should be regarded as junior synonyms of Tup. longicristatus (Martill & Naish 2006). While we still have problems with Tup. leonardii, it became obvious soon after our paper was published that Thalassodromeus really is quite a different beast from Tupuxuara: the two differ notably in the anatomy of the palate and lower jaw, in the position of the orbit, and in other details. So when Alex Kellner came up to me on the first day of the meeting and said that, after his talk, I would surely be in agreement with him that Thalassodromeus was a distinct taxon, I was already telling him (with some slight embarrassment) that we had back-tracked and already agreed with him on this issue. Alex’s talk mostly concentrated on splitting vs lumping in Cretaceous pterodactyloids, and he cautioned against the idea that taxa based on fragmentary remains (such as those from the English Cambridge Greensand) should be used as ‘gold standards’ (my term, not his) for the far superior material that comes from, for example, the Brazilian Santana and Crato formations. Again, this is a complex area that I don’t have time to cover here. Alex’s abstract mentions the new taxon Thalassodrominae, coined for Thalassodromeus and Tup. leonardii, but I don’t recall this being mentioned in the talk. If these two taxa really do group together, Tup. leonardii would need a new generic name [in the adjacent image, Mark Witton and Dave Peters discuss Mark’s poster on a new azhdarchoid taxon from the Brazilian Crato Formation].
Moving now to the section on diversity and ecology, Junchang Lü quickly reviewed all of the Chinese pterosaurs: that’s about 28 genera and 32 species. A disturbingly high number of taxa are now being suggested to be allied to, or part of, Istiodactylidae, including Haopterus and Longchengopterus, and I only learnt at the meeting that Yixianopterus might be a lonchodectid (might). Another new Huaxiapterus specimen – apparently representing yet another species in this genus – was shown. It had a tall, rostrodorsally curved frontal crest as well as a premaxillary one. Darren Naish (me) gave a brief review of Lower Cretaceous pterosaur diversity in Europe: essentially an extension of the stuff I do on the fauna of the Wealden Supergroup. Istiodactylids are now known to have had a more extensive range in the Barremian than thought previously; Coloborhynchus has a ridiculously long stratigraphic range (if all species referred to this genus really belong there) and there is a new C. clavirostris specimen; I also spoke about lonchodectids (hence interest in Yixianopterus mentioned above), European gnathosaurines and dsungaripterids… and whether we should expect anurognathids and tapejarids to be discovered in the European Barremian.
Afflicted by a terrible illness, Dave Hone spent the first few days of the meeting coughing, sneezing and spluttering his way through proceedings, his voice reduced to a harsh croaky whisper. That’s great when you’re the one welcoming delegates to the meeting, and giving a talk, but in the end it worked out. Anyway, nodules on the vocal chords aren’t fatal. Dave spoke about mutual sexual selection in pterosaurs – an area that Dave, I and Ines Cuthill are currently working on. Because both sexes in some pterosaur species are ornamented, it has sometimes been doubted that the crests might have had a role in sexual display. But it is well established that, particularly in birds, both sexes can be ornamented (for a recent review see Amundsen 2000). We’re going somewhere with this, stay tuned.
Incidentally, Dave and I also had a poster at the meeting titled ‘Perceptions of pterosaurs through time – a brief history’. This was essentially an excuse to put up pictures of Tarzan fighting a giant rhamphorhynchid, Raquel Welch being carried off by a bat-winged pteranodontid, a Gary Larson cartoon, and much else besides.
Moving now to the anatomy and physiology section of the meeting, Dave Unwin (and an absent D. Charles Deeming) reviewed what we now know of pterosaur eggs and embryos. Variability in pterosaur eggshell structure isn’t that problematical given the morphological variability seen in the eggshells of some living clades, and pterosaur eggshell porosity indicates that the eggs were buried. Interestingly, Dave reported that he and Charles had ‘predicted’ the appearance of an unhatched pterosaur embryo long before one was found: the picture, showing a baby folded up in the only position that makes sense, is apparently uncannily similar to the real thing. Pterosaur babies seem to have been hyperprecocial, and to have developed in thermal environments that were close to ambient, and the inference in the talk (and abstract) is that this implies a physiology for pterosaurs similar to that of extant lizards, turtles and crocodilians. I’m not sure it does. As demonstrated by mound-nesting birds (not all of which use vegetation mounds: the eggs may be buried in sand or soil), there is no tidy correlation between the degree of parental care and physiology.
Ok, loads more to come, but I have to stop there and go to work. In the next post I will cover such things as pterosaur pneumaticity, tapejarid ecology, the quarter-ton ‘It could look a giraffe in the eyes’ Quetzalcoatlus, and (hopefully) that amazing new Triassic taxon I mentioned previously.
Refs – –
Amundsen, T. 2000. Why are female birds ornamented? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 15, 149-155.
Fastnacht, M. 2001. First record of Coloborhynchus (Pterosauria) from the Santana Formation (Lower Cretaceous) of the Chapada do Araripe, Brazil. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 75, 23-36.
Martill, D. M. & Naish, D. 2006. Cranial crest development in the azhdarchoid pterosaur Tupuxuara, with a review of the genus and tapejarid monophyly. Palaeontology 49, 925-941.