By now, it’s reasonably well known to interested people what azhdarchid pterosaurs looked like when alive. The answer: sort of like a cross between a giraffe and a stork, though with all of this being over-ridden by uniquely pterosaurian weirdness; membranous wings supported by giant fingers, a large cranial crest, plantigrade feet, and so on.
Why have azhdarchids become so familiar? The reconstruction of several life-sized skeletons and models mean that they’ve been widely exposed to the museum-going public, CG versions have recently featured on TV programmes about Mesozoic life, and a better knowledge of their appearance and biology means that they’re increasingly featured in artwork. Tetrapod Zoology has, I think it’s fair to say, done more than its fair share of azhdarchid promotion, plus there’s also a rather good paper on these animals by two chaps called Witton and Naish (Witton & Naish 2008). Mark has illustrated azhdarchids many times, and – as I hope you know – he’s working on something BIG due to be showcased very, very soon. I can’t wait. Anyway…
I first got to know Quetzalcoatlus as a very, very different beast, however. Little known today (it seems) is that Quetzalcoatlus was depicted as a most peculiar creature in a few books from the 1970s and 80s. As you can see from the images reproduced here (the drawing above is by Guy Michel and appeared in John Gilbert’s 1979 book Dinosaurs Discovered), it was shown as being a short-headed pterosaur with a weird lump on the back of its head and pointed, toothy jaws. Imagined like this, it really looks like some sort of horrific demon. Richard Orr’s painting – shown below – always makes me think of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s scenes of hell; truly it’s a horrific, terrifying scene (and I don’t mean that as a slight to Orr’s good artwork). Where on earth did this view of Quetzalcoatlus come from?
Orr’s painting comes from a Dougal Dixon book (Prehistoric Reptiles) that was originally published in 1984 (I only have a 1993 edition). It’s obvious from many of the scenes included in the book that Orr had been heavily inspired by Giovanni Caselli’s reconstructions from L. B. Halstead’s The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs (first published in 1975). Sure enough, if we look at this book, we see another version of the same creature [shown here]. Caselli didn’t show the animals in as much detail as Orr did in 1984 or Michel did in 1979, but we can see a comparatively short skull and a blunt, knob-like crest at the back of the head. The animals are also shown as being red, just like Orr’s creature: as I’ve said before (in connection with phorusrhacids and astrapotheres: it’s pet peeve # 112), artists frequently follow the colour schemes of their predecessors, meaning that a certain ‘uniform’ becomes associated with a certain creature for no good reason. Anyway… Caselli’s version came first – but where did it come from?
Alas, this is where I draw a blank. I used to correspond with Giovanni Caselli: we’ve fallen out of touch, but I emailed him today and will let you know what he says. I’ve assumed that the short-headed, toothy nightmare version of Quetzalcoatlus was inspired by an early rendition published in a newspaper article or something, but the problem with this idea is that the early versions of Quetzalcoatlus that accompany papers, magazine articles and such correctly show the animal with a long, toothless rostrum. Wann Langston was illustrating Quetzalcoatlus like this as early as 1977 (recall that Quetzalcoatlus was discovered in 1972 and described – tersely – in 1975) [adjacent image is taken from a magazine article, published in 1977 by Langston: I don’t have the complete reference, but the article was titled ‘The great pterosaur’]. Incidentally, some of you might know that Quetzalcoatlus was so tersely described that there are some doubts about its validity…
Anyway… until I hear back from Giovanni, I’m stumped. I’ve mentioned this freakish version of Quetzalcoatlus before (here on Pterosaur.net), but have never seen it mentioned by anyone else, ever, nor have I met anyone who knows anything about it. If you know more, please do share!
For previous Tet Zoo articles on azhdarchids and other Cretaceous pterosaurs see…
- It could look a giraffe in the eyes
- The Wellnhofer pterosaur meeting, part II
- Crato Formation fossils and the new tapejarids
- Tiny pterosaurs and pac-man frogs from hell
- Terrestrial stalking azhdarchids, the paper
- “The single most beautiful image anywhere on the internet”
- Shemhazai and other flightless pterosaurs
- Come back Lank, (nearly) all is forgiven
- Amerindian art shows that giant flightless pterosaurs survived into modern times
- Mark Witton’s secret: finally out
One more thing: Tet Zoo has covered hypothetical flightless pterosaurs a few times (so has the Pterosaur.net blog: go here and here). A new paper in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (by Don Henderson) finds Quetzalcoatlus to exceed 500 kg in mass, leading to the serious suggestion that it must have been secondarily flightless. I think there’s been a mistake here (Witton (2008) estimated Quetzalcoatlus to be 225 kg, Paul (2002) suggested 250 kg, and Sato et al. (2009) provided an estimate of 279 kg: even these have been regarded as surprisingly heavy by some workers), but I’ll withold judgement until I’ve read the paper.
Refs – –
Dixon, D. 1993. Prehistoric Reptiles. Evans Brothers Limited, London.
Gilbert, J. 1979. Dinosaurs Discovered. Hamlyn, London.
Halstead, L. B. 1975. The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs. Peter Lowe, London.
Paul, G. S. 2002. Dinosaurs of the Air: The Evolution and Loss of Flight in Dinosaurs and Birds. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Sato, K., Sakamoto, K. Q., Watanuki, Y., Takahashi, A., Katsumata, N., Bost,
C.-A. & Weimerskirch, H. 2009. Scaling of soaring seabirds and implications for flight abilities of giant pterosaurs. PLoS ONE 4(4): e5400. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005400
Witton, M. P. 2008. A new approach to determining pterosaur body mass and its implications for pterosaur flight. Zitteliana B28, 143-158.