Regular readers of Tet Zoo will have seen the little clues given here and there to a big, infinitely cool project that’s been months and months in the making (here’s the first big hint, from August 2009). For some time now my colleagues Dave Martill, Bob Loveridge, Mark Witton and others at the University of Portsmouth have been making life-sized pterosaur models for an exhibition. As you may know by now, this exhibition was the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (hosted at Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, London), and it happened between June 25th and July 4th.
Titled Pterosaurs: Dragons of the Air, our pterosaur section of the event featured both an outdoor and indoor component. Three life-sized azhdarchid models were posed as if flying overhead, and two walking individuals – contained within a planted enclosure, surrounded by information boards – encapsulated the ‘terrestrial stalking’ model that Mark and I endorsed in our PLoS ONE paper (Witton & Naish 2008). The exhibition also included a wall of model pterosaur heads, sculpted by Mark (aided and abetted by an army of student helpers) and all incorporating hypotheses on lifestyle, ecology and behaviour. Soooo much information – where do I start? I took nearly 600 photos and have included a good selection here and in the following (as-yet-unpublished) article.
Building life-sized azhdarchids
As you might guess, the building of life-sized azhdarchids – flying and walking azhdarchids – is not particularly easy, and there were many times during the construction process when delays and setbacks made on-time completion look unlikely. Metal frames constructed by a company that normally manufactures hovercrafts (Griffon Hoverwork) formed the skeletons of the models. Their bodies were sculpted from styrofoam, their wing membranes made from tough plastic sheeting, and they were eventually kitted out with realistic eyes and a furry pelt [some stages in the construction are shown below: most of these photos date to September 2009 or earlier. An early maquette is shown in the adjacent image]. They were also given all the details required to make them look like real animals that had been living real lives: look in the photos for scars, battle-damage and general wear and tear.
I am reliably informed that Mark will be elaborating on model construction over at the pterosaur.net blog some time soon. In case anyone gets the wrong idea, I played no part at all in constructing the models; all I did is visit the workshops and gasp in awe as things developed. I still can’t quite believe that Mark, Dave, Bob and the others did it all in time – truly a Herculean effort.
The outdoor exhibit
Our two walking azhdarchids – representing a male Quetzalcoatlus (with a big head crest and battle scars) and a smaller, less flamboyant female – are posed as if wandering through an open floodplain habitat. The plants aren’t necessarily Cretaceous species or genera of course, but they do represent several Cretaceous groups, and some people took delight in pointing out the presence of ginkgos, Wollemi pines and such. The female Quetzalcoatlus is picking up a baby titanosaur: the titanosaur was obviously a little baby, but at least a few people misinterpreted the scaling and assumed that it was meant to be an adult (in which case the azhdarchids were of Godzillian proportions). Children were variously delighted, amused or traumatised to see such a vicious act of predation. A nest, featuring eggs and a precocial emerging hatchling [shown below], is also included in the display.
The three azhdarchids soaring or flapping overhead [shown above] were typically the first thing you would see while walking from Waterloo in the direction of the London Eye, or when coming across Hungerford Bridge toward the South Bank. When the sun was out they cast great shadows across the pavement beneath, and when the wind was up the third of them – Oscar, decked out with roundels to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain – rocked around a bit, though not to the extent that anyone was ever in danger.
William Stout, Q the Winged Serpent, spitfires, Wright flyers, Argentavis, Rodan and Cloverfield were all mentioned at one time or another (mostly by those of us hosting the exhibition).
The information boards surrounding the outdoor exhibit contained a huge amount of information and looked excellent. Truly a visual treat for any pterosaur aficionado (and for everyone else). Each board focused on a different theme. Here’s part of one of the boards, focusing on pterosaur trackways and limb posture…
One covered the history of animal flight across geological time and included images and text on early insects, griffinflies (the cool new name for protodonatans), gliding reptiles, birds, bats and so on. Another explained how we go from finding incomplete fossils in the field (the discovery of Alanqa saharica in Morocco was showcased) to reconstructing skeletons, and how we then incorporate data on posture and soft tissues to build life restorations. A guide to pterosaur anatomy, phylogeny and diversity was included, with excellent coloured diagrams and cladograms.
One board introduced Quetzalcoatlus specifically; as usual, Mark’s pictures of Hatzegopteryx next to a giraffe and a person was remarked on by many visitors. The biographical section on Mark himself – ‘Mark Witton: the scientist’ and ‘Mark Witton: the artist’ – was a great touch [in the image above, Dr Lorna Steel prods Mark's image. After all, she can't do the same to the real thing].
Finally, one big stand-alone board featured life-sized versions of Mark’s Pterodactylus, Pterodaustro, Lacusovagus and Pteranodon illustrations. The idea was that people could stand next to these for photos, as per the image here [featuring John Conway and your humble author].
The stuff people say – most of it good
The amount of interest from the public was huge. We got to speak about azhdarchids a lot: about quadrupedal launching, about the terrestrial stalking hypothesis, about pterosaur origins, extinction and diversity, about the distribution of integumentary structures within archosaurs, and also about the evolution of flight in birds, bats and insects. The commonest question I encountered concerned pterosaur fuzz (the fibres covering the body – definitely present in exceptionally-preserved pterosaur fossils – are properly known as pycnofibers). Many people were surprised by the presence of this material on the pterosaurs and wondered whether we’d just made it up. The photo we had of Sordes helped convince them otherwise, but I also used it as an opportunity to tell people that pycnofibers had actually been reported as early as the 1960s and that all those naked skinned pterosaurs they’d seen in children’s books and movies were dead inaccurate, and long known to be so (see Frey & Martill (1998) for a good historical review of pycnofiber occurrences).
Many people I spoke to were also curious about the colours…. my stock answer on this has always been that colour is not only unknown, but unknowable, and hence the least important bit of the restoration. Of course, this has now changed given those new papers on Sinosauropteryx and Anchiornis (aaaaand there’s a claim that colour has also been detected in Psittacosaurus, but there’s a lot more scepticism about this). The colours Mark went for on the azhdarchids were rather muted (mostly greys and browns)… that’s ok, but of course bright colours on the head crests and perhaps elsewhere are plausible too.
A few people apparently asked whether these were mythical dragons, whether they were real creatures or not, and one or two creationists expressed disbelief in… I dunno, something (one gentleman said to me “How do you explain the fact that these creatures aren’t mentioned in the Bible?”, but his friend then revealed that he was joking. Tenrecs, manta rays and pangolins aren’t mentioned in the Bible either, I was going to say). As I’ve said before, palaeontology often seems to be ‘on the front line’ when it comes to creationists. They attack palaeontologists because they’re a big, obvious target, and are too cowardly to argue with people who work on astronomy, brain anatomy, parasite genetics or evolutionary psychology; this despite the fact that these people have perspectives and data that are far more relevant when it comes to such issues as the age of the universe and evolutionary theory. Events such as the Royal Society Summer Science Festival – where visitor numbers are in the thousands – never seem to attract more than a handful of creationists, and I think that’s mostly because virtually all of the people who hold creationist views have no interest whatsoever in the natural world or the diversity of life.
Anyway, more to come next: on the indoor part of the exhibit, on our many ‘special’ visitors, on the air-penguins, and more… If you haven’t done so, check out the articles at pterosaur.net here and here.
For more pterosaur awesomeness on Tet Zoo, see…
- Dsungaripterid pterosaurs and the proliferation of Wittoniana
- The Wellnhofer pterosaur meeting, part I
- It could look a giraffe in the eyes
- The Wellnhofer pterosaur meeting, part II
- The Wellnhofer pterosaur meeting, part III
- Crato Formation fossils and the new tapejarids
- Terrestrial stalking azhdarchids, the paper
- Pterosaurs breathed in bird-like fashion and had inflatable air sacs in their wings
- A month in dinosaurs (and pterosaurs): 4, flaplings and head-sails anew
- A month in dinosaurs (and pterosaurs): 5, pterosaurs vs birds, or not… or is it?
- Darwinopterus, the remarkable transitional pterosaur
- The long-awaited launch of Pterosaur.net
- Zhenyuanopterus, Boreopterus and the Ask A Biologist relaunch
Refs – –
Frey, E. & Martill, D. M. 1998. Soft tissue preservation in a specimen of Pterodactylus kochi (Wagner) from the Upper Jurassic of Germany. Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Palaontologie, Abhandlungen 210, 421-441.
Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE 3 (5): e2271. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002271