Tetrapod Zoology

Tet Zoo on tour

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Well, what an interesting time I’ve had. Firstly, many thanks to everyone who left a comment – however silly or clueless – on the ‘novel Mesozoic archosaur’ I posted here a few weeks ago. As those in the know correctly stated, the cartoons depict the Brazilian Cretaceous theropod Irritator challengeri in its original guise as a gigantic flightless pterosaur. Now known without doubt to be a spinosaurine spinosaurid (Sues et al. 2002), Irritator was – astonishingly – first published (Martill et al. 1996) as a coelurosaur and as part of Tom Holtz’s Bullatosauria (a since-disbanded ornithomimosaur + troodontid clade).

Prior to that however, the authors have gone on record as saying that they first identified Irritator as a giant basal pterosaur (the skull had actually been modified by its original owner to make it resemble a pterosaur more than a theropod), and this is such a fun concept that Bob and I were inspired to ‘imagineer’ it. My version depicts the animal as a flightless basal pterosaur, whereas Bob’s might be a bit more pterodactyloidy. The scale is not tremendously accurate: the skull of Irritator is 60 cm long as preserved, not nearly 2 m long as shown in the drawing. Anyway…

As some of you know, while away I attended the CFZ’s Weird Weekend meeting, held at Woolfardisworthy (or Woolsery) in the north Devon countryside. As always, while Weird Weekend included talks on all manner of arcane fortean weirdness, it also included enough serious cryptozoological stuff to make it worth my while going. Matt Salusbury spoke about pygmy elephants from around the world, Mike Dash discussed his quest for Dr McRae’s lost Loch Ness monster film, Richard Freeman spoke about his expedition to the Causasus in search of evidence for the almasty, and Michael Woodley discussed his thoughts on the classification of aquatic cryptids (or sea serpents, if you like). It was a pleasure to finally meet Michael: a molecular ecologist and author of the much-discussed In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans (Woodley 2008) [cover shown below], Michael and I are going to be working on a few projects about aquatic cryptids in the future. Given the death of the International Society of Cryptozoology and hence the lack of any academic venue for cryptozoological research, Michael has been talking seriously about getting some academic cryptozoological society up and running once more. This might involve technical conferences and a peer-reviewed journal. Stay tuned.

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Karl Shuker attended for the launch of his new book, Dr Shuker’s Casebook (Shuker 2008), and Jon McGowan and I made further progress on our paper about field evidence for British big cats. Long-time readers will know that I feel frustrated about the fact that British big cat researchers have done a very poor job of getting their data published in ‘mainstream’ literature (go here): a process which reinforces the idea that such data doesn’t exist. Having said that, Coard (2007) recently showed that bite marks seen on British livestock bones were made by large exotic felids, and British Wildlife and Ecos have both published recent articles that looked at the subject seriously.

I was also able to take good photos of the Durgan Beach ‘sea monster’ skull and confirm for myself that it is indeed a pilot whale skull: as you can see from the composite here (where the Durgan skull [at left] is compared with a Short-finned pilot whale Globicephala macrorhynchus skull, photo provided by Colin McHenry), the rostrum is too long for this to be G. macrorhynchus (there are other differences too, such as in the shape of the antorbital notches), so I assume it’s a Long-finned pilot whale G. melas. I don’t have photos of G. melas so can’t confirm this. Anyway, this is yet another cetacean skull that initially became involved in sea monster lore: collected on the Cornish beach in 1975, it was first reported in newspapers as part of an unidentified carcass perhaps relevant to the local sightings of Morgawr, the Cornish sea serpent.

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And thanks to Jon Downes I was finally able to get hold of Steyermark et al.’s Biology of the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina): I wrote about snapping turtles at Tet Zoo ver 1 here, here and here, so it’s great to finally see this valuable contribution. Incidentally, the talk of the town was not, as you might guess, the so-called Georgia gorilla: an alleged Bigfoot carcass unveiled to the media on Friday, but widely thought beforehand to be completely bogus on account of the fact that the ‘carcass’ looked exactly like the furry suit with rubber mask that it turned out to be. Well done to those involved, you’ve done a very good job of perpetuating the idea that the study of sasquatch is nothing more than fringe nonsense associated only with idiots, fraudsters and charlatans. Anyway, many thanks to Jon McGowan, Jon and Corinna Downes and everyone else who assisted in my attending this meeting.

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After Weird Weekend I made the trek to Oxford where – as you’ll know if you’ve already looked at SV-POW! – I met up with Mathew Wedel and Mike Taylor for a day at the Oxford University Museum. Besides spending much time looking at the awesome amount of material they have on display (literally, everything from giant salamanders to babirusas to gorillas to shoebills [one shown here: for more on this bird go here on Tet Zoo ver 1] to eared nightjars to hadrosaurs to ichthyosaurs), we also looked at material in the behind-the-scenes dinosaur collections… and discovered something very interesting. Needless to say, we will be bringing it to light in due time. The complete, mummified baby sauropod discovered in the collections was quite a shock (Mike and I are posing with it in the middle image).

We then moved on to rural Gloucestershire (ironically, a big cat hotspot). But now I’m back, and with loads to catch up on, SVPCA to prepare for, and much else to worry about too. I’m afraid the posts will continue to be ‘text-lite’ for a bit longer yet… Oh, Tet Zoo The Movie hopefully coming soon, honest.

Refs – -

Coard, R. 2007. Ascertaining an agent: using tooth pit data to determine the carnivores responsible for predation in cases of suspected big cat kills. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 1677-1684.

Martill, D. M., Cruickshank, A. R. I., Frey, E., Small, P. G. & Clarke, M. 1996. A new crested maniraptoran dinosaur from the Santana Formation (Lower Cretaceous) of Brazil. Journal of the Geological Society, London 153, 5-8.

Shuker, K. P. N. 2008. Dr Shuker’s Casebook. CFZ Press, Bideford.

Sues, H.-D., Frey, E., Martill, D. M. & Scott, D. M. 2002. Irritator challangeri, a spinosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22, 535-547.

Woodley, M. A. 2008. In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans. CFZ Press, Bideford.

Comments

  1. #1 Nemo Ramjet
    August 22, 2008

    Tet Zoo The Movie? It is indeed on the way. In less than a month! :)

  2. #2 shiva
    August 22, 2008

    A peer-reviewed journal on cryptozoology? Sweeeeeeet…

    I thought the head of the mystery creature looked spinosaurid, but was a bit afraid to say so in case of being laughed at for some obviously non-spinosaurid thing about it that a laygeek like myself would miss.

    (Actually, i thought Gronk might have been an “Exquisite Corpse” made from bits of various critters, a la Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s parlour game. The other pic was more clearly a speculative flightless pterosaur, and if not for the spinosaur-esque head, i would have thought it was a Specworld azdarchid…)

  3. #3 Mike from Ottawa
    August 22, 2008

    Random comments: Again a TetZoo post has me surfing around looking stuff up. I came across the wikipedia entry on the ahool, a flying cryptid that, apparently, some have as a pterosaur. Now, it would be absolutely, positively the coolest thing possible if that were so. I know that’s as likely as me winning the lottery without buying a ticket, but one can dream. It would be even cooler than a living plesiosaur or a living trilobite (my apologies for mentioning an non-tetrapod, but they are cool). Of course, a part of me suspects Mark Witton has live pterosaurs tucked off in some family estate on a remote Scottish island and is merely pretending to be an impoverished PhD student. I mean, seriously, he must do those pterosaur pics from life.

    When I first saw a picture of a shoebill in a Time-Life Nature series book as a kid something about it just seemed terrifying. I had nightmares about being chased around in a swamp of tall reeds by shoebills. That was so long ago I’m a bit surprised I remember it, but pictures of shoebills bring it back. That was actually so long ago that the volume of that series on The Earth had ‘continental drift’ mentioned as a nice idea but not right, though there was a line about some interesting new geomagnetic data that might shed some light on it. An interesting artifact from a transition period.

    Hopefully TetZoo: The Movie will present the positive portrait of scientists shown in that middle pic with the mummified baby sauropod.

    And, finally, whale skulls, even after the recent series on them here, remain completely and utterly effin’ weird.

    Thanks, Darren.

  4. #4 Alec T
    August 22, 2008

    In a perfect world, TetZoo: The Movie would sell more tickets than The Dark Knight :)

  5. #5 Mark Lees
    August 23, 2008

    A serious cryptozoology journal sounds rather wonderful.

    I was a member of ISC – indeed since I didn’t receive all the newsletters relating to my last subscription I guess you could argue I still am, though since it doesn’t exist any more that’s fairly meaningless.

    I’m not sure what to make of it being ‘peer-reviewed’ – who would the reviewers be? The peer review process has many merits, and works well for research that lies within a prevailing paradigm, but when dealing with any field considered fringe it becomes more of a mixed blessing. Also it appears that many of the ‘experts’ in cryptozoology seem self proclaimed. I’m not against the idea, just not sure how big a pool of useful reviewers there would be.

  6. #6 David Marjanovi?
    August 23, 2008

    Well, you could use real zoologists like yourself as the peers. I just fear that most of them will refuse to take cryptozoology seriously on principle.

  7. #7 Quietman
    August 23, 2008

    I do take cryptozoology seriously since there have been cryptids identified by biologists as simply unrecognized variations of known species and feel that peer review by a skeptical zoologist is an excellent idea. The refusal to take seriously is often a public facade to avoid ridicule.
    The new TV show on SciFi investigates cryptids in both an amusing and scientific manner. Their finding of fresh Yeti tracks and audio recordings were startling. You can view the episode on SciFi.com by clicking on full episodes, “destination truth”.

  8. #8 Cameron
    August 23, 2008

    Wow, I’m not the only one with a childhood fear of shoebills! I remembered it towering over me like a grim animated statue, staring, just staring…

    Is this peer-reviewed journal of cryptozoology going to be open access or at least cheap? As interesting as stuff is I am not going to be able to shell out 40 bucks an article – well, I could but I’d have to take up a life of crime.

  9. #9 Jenny Islander
    August 24, 2008

    So what, in your opinion, might a flightless pterosaur have looked like? Presumably oceanic hot spots spawned island chains in the Mesozoic, as now, and arguably some were colonized by flying tetrapods blown out to sea, as now, and quite possibly (in my amateur opinion) the first colonizers of at least one archipelago happened to be pterosaurs. Their fossils are long gone, of course. But if it were advantageous for island pterosaurs to lose their wings, what might their descendants become in a million years? Five million years?

  10. #10 JuliaM
    August 24, 2008

    “Karl Shuker attended for the launch of his new book, Dr Shuker’s Casebook (Shuker 2008)..”

    Woohoo! That’s one for the Amazon orderlist. Roll on the ‘Tet Zoo: The Movie’ too.. :)

  11. #11 DDeden
    August 24, 2008

    “But if it were advantageous for island pterosaurs to lose their wings, what might their descendants become in a million years? Five million years?”

    Posted by: Jenny Islander

    Thank you Jenny! After seeing what happens to islanded flying insects and islanded flying bird descendants, your question is very appropriate, yet I’d never considered it.

    What did they eat? Were there lagoon fish, coconuts, mangroves, seafood, crabs, monitor lizards, etc.? Would they become cliff/beach dwelling/nesting? Would they become heavier, larger like dodos or the Madagascar elephant bird?

    From newly emerged volcanic islands to worn down coral atolls, would niches exist for a flightless pterosaur, as in the flightless cormorant or penguin? I know so little about pterosaurs, it’s pure guesswork, with fossils extremely unlikely to be found, but the idea certainly intrigues.

  12. #12 Andreas Johansson
    August 24, 2008

    Intuitively, pterosaurs might be less apt to flightnessness than birds because, having all four limbs part of the flight apparatus, they’re more evolutionary “committed” to flight. Do y’all think there might be something to this?

  13. #13 Darren Naish
    August 24, 2008

    Flightless pterosaurs: it’s been said on several occasions (by myself and others) that the fore- and hindlimb linkage present in pterosaurs may have prevented them from evolving flightlessness. Given the surprising absence of fossil flightless pterosaurs, I still think there might be something in this. However, our thoughts on the terrestrial abilities of pterodactyloid pterosaurs have changed in recent years. As you’ll all recall from the work that Mark Witton and I have published on azhdarchid palaeobiology, there are now good reasons for thinking that azhdarchoids, and some other pterodactyloids (like dsungaripterids), were strongly terrestrial, well adapted for quadrupedal walking (and perhaps even running), and with proportionally short wings. I’d say it’s conceivable that such forms might have become flightless quadrupeds given the right conditions (such as absence of terrestrial predators). In such cases, their wing-fingers and wing-membranes might have shrivelled to nothing, but they might have remained as omnivores, or perhaps even become herbivores given the possibility that fruit and other plant material might have made up part of the ancestral diet.

    In the case of azhdarchids, the particularly ironic thing about this is that a flightless azhdarchid would have resembled a tall-shouldered artiodactyl – like a wildebeest or giraffe – in approximate proportions. And this is ironic because it’s been said that one of the most unlikely creatures from Dixon’s The New Dinosaurs is the Lank Herbafagus longicollum, a giraffe-like flightless pterosaur. Maybe I should turn this comment into a full-fledged article…

  14. #14 Karl Zimmerman
    August 24, 2008

    Darren,

    I’ve been taking part in an updating of the Speculative Dinosaur Project, and your posting of the flightless pterosaur pictures was unusually timely. Azhdarchids were killed off by one of the original creators – partially because “Late-K with a new hat” wanted to be avoided.

    But the work of Mark Witton and yourself on Azhdarchids was convincing enough for us to think the survival of the clade, given no K/T, is quite likely. And for reasons of its own internal cannon (the wonderful, but somewhat implausible, hypercarnivorous ornithischians which have long been created), “spec” has to have the native Australian carnivorous dinosaurs all but go extinct some time in the Cenozoic. Which makes flightless forms on Australia very likely to evolve, galloping across the outback.

    I’m hoping whenever Mark gets back online again he’ll draw us up a few if we ask him nicely enough…

  15. #15 Mike from Ottawa
    August 24, 2008

    With something as big as an azhdarchid to start with, flightless forms might evolve even where there are predators, just so long as they’re too small to be a threat to azhdarchids themselves, thus being more food for the pterosaurs. You might have the chicks hatching out capable of flight, and thus safe from most predators while small, eventually taking to the ground once they’d reached a size where they were safe from non-azhdarchid predators.

    Maybe the most wonderful thing in Unwin’s pterosaur book was that pterosaurs started out able to fly and that different niches occupied by birds of different size now may have been occupied by a single pterosaur species at different points in development. If that was the case, then maybe a flightless pterosaur that starts life flighted wouldn’t be out of the question.

    Oh, and Darren, “Maybe I should turn this comment into a full-fledged article..” – well, of course!

  16. #16 Jerzy
    August 24, 2008

    Darren,

    You need to take a trip to somewhere where big cats live and see for yourself how easy it is to find their tracks…

    About flightless pterosaurs, I read speculation somewhere (“Africa, the island continent” or similar title) that birds evolve flightlessness as neoteny, and in relation to their ontogeny. So Galliformes and pterosaurs which start flying early are unlikely to become flightless. I’m probably messing something, but worth checking.

  17. #17 Zach Miller
    August 24, 2008

    Karl, I’ll be helping soon, I promise. Got to get this art show wrapped up, first!

  18. #18 David Marjanovi?
    August 25, 2008

    And for reasons of its own internal cannon

    By which Karl of course means canon.

    the wonderful, but somewhat implausible, hypercarnivorous ornithischians which have long been created

    I think I managed to give them a halfway plausible explanation: pig –> bear –> sabretooth. And, perhaps more importantly, we hesitate to undo them behind the back of their creator, who isn’t available at the moment…

  19. #19 Jenny Islander
    August 27, 2008

    As you’ll all recall from the work that Mark Witton and I have published on azhdarchid palaeobiology, there are now good reasons for thinking that azhdarchoids, and some other pterodactyloids (like dsungaripterids), were strongly terrestrial, well adapted for quadrupedal walking (and perhaps even running), and with proportionally short wings. I’d say it’s conceivable that such forms might have become flightless quadrupeds given the right conditions (such as absence of terrestrial predators). In such cases, their wing-fingers and wing-membranes might have shrivelled to nothing, but they might have remained as omnivores, or perhaps even become herbivores given the possibility that fruit and other plant material might have made up part of the ancestral diet.

    This has interesting implications for oceanic island life in the Mesozoic. If all but the most remote and inhospitable islands could have been a habitat for ground-dwelling omnivores, then there would have been future “gentle paradise” ecosystems. Fewer species of terrestrial bird; more pressure on tortoises, turtles, land crabs, and perhaps flightless seabirds.

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