Origin of the evil, demonic Quetzalcoatlus revealed

If you're a regular reader you'll have seen the recent article on those freaky, terrifying versions of the azhdarchid pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus from the 1970s and 80s. We looked at Guy Michel's version from 1979 and Richard Orr's spectacularly colourful rendition from 1984. My friend Paul Glynn reminded me recently that there's another version out there: Bob Hersey's purple Quetzalcoatlus from David Norman's 1980 Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs & Other Prehistoric Animals (Norman 1980). I show it here. Again, freakin' terrifying.


As I said last time round, the image of the 'demonic Quetzalcoatlus', if you will, seems to have originated with Giovanni Caselli's 1975 painting from L. B. Halstead's The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs. Hersey's purple version is very obviously based on Caselli's painting, and I'm 99% certain that the other demonic azhdarchids are based on his painting to. Sooo.... the big question is: where did Giovanni's version come from? I have the answer; yes, Giovanni was able to get back to me.


When the illustrations for The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs were being produced, Quetzalcoatlus had only just been announced, and wasn't even named (evidently, we're talking about somewhere between 1972 and 1975). So, there was no idea what it might look like: all that was known was that it was a giant pterosaur that lived inland. Giovanni's painting was, therefore, an exercise in speculation. How ironic, then, that his conjectural creation became a sort of meme that persisted until the 1990s at least (the Richard Orr version was appearing in 1993 editions of Dougal Dixon's Prehistoric Reptiles).

I wish to thank Giovanni Caselli for providing this information and for getting back to me so quickly. Giovanni's artwork was highly influential and you can see 'his' animals - redrawn in different poses - in many other prehistoric animal books from the 1970s and 80s. As I'm sure I've said before, Halstead's book and Giovanni's art inspired me a great deal: The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs was something like the second dinosaur book I ever owned (the first would have been Colin Douglas's ladybird leaders book Dinosaurs).


One last thing... that purple demonic Quetzalcoatlus from the 1980 version of Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs & Other Prehistoric Animals had to be replaced when the book was republished in 2000. Here [above] is the replacement (several artists contributed to this edition, and I'm not sure which of them did the azhdarchid). This time round, we see the obvious influence of John Sibbick's version from Peter Wellnhofer's 1991 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs (Wellnhofer 1991). Sibbick's version wasn't blue, but it did have similar patterning and colouring on the head. But check out the interesting details in the text... an estimated wingspan of 17 metres, and a translation of Quetzalcoatlus as 'Dragon-head support'. WTF???

For previous Tet Zoo articles on azhdarchids and other Cretaceous pterosaurs see...

Refs - -

Norman, D. B. 1980. Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs & Other Prehistoric Animals. Usborne, London.

Wellnhofer, P. 1991. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. Salamander Books Ltd, London.


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As I said... memories... I read that book (in German of course) twice, when I was maybe 7 and maybe 10 years old. Formative experience.

and a translation of Quetzalcoatlus as 'Dragon-head support'. WTF???

babelfish.altavista.com already existed in 2000.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 31 May 2010 #permalink

Spooky - my first and second dinosaur books were the same (and in the same order) as yours. Maybe that's all that was kicking around in southern UK in the 70s?

I absolutely loved The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs and the illustrations still take me back to that childhood state of fascination and wonder. My favourite picture was the Allosaurus / Ceratosaurus (was that based on a proposed mount for the AMNH, or some such?), but the image of a herd of Iguanodons charging over a cliff left an indelible impression as well.

When my kids were young I found a pristine copy of the Ladybird book in a charity shop - what a pleasure it was bringing that home!

I know this purple Quetzalcoatlus quite well, it was in one of my very first dinosaur books. I can´t remember the name of the book at the moment and don´t have it here to look for it. I really liked this book, and some time ago when I took again a look at it, I found that I still like it, despite the many errors.
I still remember that I found the reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus in this book always quite strange, especially because it had such unusual wing membranes. There are also two quite bloodthirsty depictions of Carnosaurs mutilating carcasses in the book, what´s really somewhat surprising given the fact that it was a childen book.

I agree with shiva! That's what the first illustration looks like to me. Also, it looks a bit 19th century.

You picked a very refreshing topic, Darren. More of it, please!

> Halstead's book and Giovanni's art inspired me a great deal: The
> Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs was something like the
> second dinosaur book I ever owned

> As I said... memories... I read that book (in German of course)
> twice, when I was maybe 7 and maybe 10 years old. Formative
> experience.

> Spooky - my first and second dinosaur books were the same (and in
> the same order) as yours...I absolutely loved The Evolution and
> Ecology of the Dinosaurs

I back this. The German version, called "Die Welt der Dinosaurier" (The World of Dinosaurs), was my first Dinosaur book, too, a christmas gift in, maybe, 1977? I loved it to death, but what remains of this book still leads a quiet life on my parents attic.
With the benefit of hindsight, one might shake one's head over the flipper-armed *Compsognathus corallestris*,*Ornithosuchus*, the Karnian Karnosaur, or illustration that suggested rauisuchians to be the ancestors of prosauropods, but, by mid-seventies standards and for a book largely aimed at children, it was quite up to date and captured the spirit of the dinosaur renaissance really well.

Please forgive a brief off-topic observation: as of this moment, TetZoo has 3 of the 5 "Readers' Picks" articles on ScienceBlogs. They like you, they really like you, Darren!

By Squiddhartha (not verified) on 31 May 2010 #permalink

Thanks to all for comments, much appreciated. In agreement with Johannes (comment 8): yes, what makes Halstead (1975) particularly interesting is that it was - pretty much - a 'cutting edge' book for its time. All of those things you mention were brand-new and exciting in 1975, and very much reflect the proposals of the time. Alan Charig had only just proposed that rauisuchians (sensu lato) may indeed be ancestral to prosauropods, for example, and Compsognathus corallestris, Longisquama, Sordes, 'Podopteryx' and the 'fighting dinosaurs' were all very new. Many of the illustrations were clearly based on images that had recently appeared in the technical literature, like the Galtonesque running hadrosaur, hypsilophodont and head-butting pachycephalosaurs, the Kuhn-Schnyder-inspired askeptosaur (though swimming instead of basking) and the Newman-style standing tyrannosaur.

My favourite Quetzalcoatlus is John Sibbick's excellent illustration in Wellhofer's equally excellent The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. The main illustration shows three Quetzalcoatlus soaring over a canyon through which a small herd of sauropods are walking along a dried-up stream bed. On the same page is a small photo of an excavation and a size comparison graphic (with a human) plus a map and time chart. The previous page has an image of the upper bone. It also has a photo comparing a large Quetzalcoatlus with that of what it says is a smaller Quetzalcoatlussp. as yet unnamed (p141), although the texts suggest the bone might be from a juvenile.

Forgot to mention that there are two images of feeding Quetzalcoatlus too, one as a scavenger on a large dinosaur carcass a la Michel but less demonic by half. Also photos of a cervical vertebra and the front of the jaws from the small Quetzalcoatlus.

Sordes- sounds like the Spotter's Guide to Dinosaurs illustrations to me- there were several impressively bloodthirsty illustrations, and some wonderfully lurid colour schemes- purple Kritosaurus, Palaeoscincus in red and blue, and a bright green Spinosaurus. What most disappointed me about the book was that there weren't any circles to tick when you'd seen the dinosaurs in a museum.

Stu of the Peak- sadly for everyone influenced by the John Sibbick illustration that set of small jaws isn't from Quetzalcoatlus after all.

By Dave Godfrey (not verified) on 31 May 2010 #permalink

Yup, John Sibbick's Quetzalcoatlus was drawn with the jaw tips of another, unnamed, azhdarchid from the Javelina Formation. You can read all about it here. It's definitely one of John's better pterosaur images from the Wellnhofer pterosaur encyclopaedia, but, like all the pterosaurs it still bears arms that are far too skinny. And I don't just mean that they're undermuscled, but the arm bones wouldn't fit inside them (more on this and the rest of the book featuring these illustrations here.

As for Caselli's image, it looks like something must've been known of Quetzalcoatlus anatomy when he drew it: the proportions of the forelimb bones look very azhdarchoid-like and, seeing as this configuration was unknown in other pterosaurs in the 1970s, this information was almost certainly derived from Quetz. itself. This means that the long neck may have been based on the Quetz. material too, though this could've been borrowed from ctenochasmatoids.

One I just remembered from those hazy early 80's, was William Stout's pic of a Quetzalcoatlus in The Dinosaurs. Evil-looking and emaciated! Tried to find a scan via google but no luck. :-(
I did see that the classic Madstoia versus Laplatasaurus (sic?) battle is up on SVOW though!

*Ornithosuchus*, the Karnian Karnosaur

LOL! So true, so true...

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 31 May 2010 #permalink

... and a translation of Quetzalcoatlus as 'Dragon-head support'. WTF???

I'd bet that this "translation" was the result of an editor's question about the illustration that somehow was misinterpreted as a correction and found its way into print.

It wouldn't be the first time a comment got into the final copy: http://www.snopes.com/business/names/wgasa.asp ...

By Murgatroyd (not verified) on 31 May 2010 #permalink

The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs (in Swedish translation) was one of the first dino books I read too. I should, for old times sake, take a look at it next time I visit my parents. (It's my great fortune that my father's something of a bibliophile, with a personal library of thousands of volumes covering a great many subjects. I don't think, however, he's bought any dino books since the '80s, so that section is unchanged since my childhood.)

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

One of the earliest dino books I've read was the Portuguese translation of Prehistoric Animals, by Barry Cox (English original: Knowledge Through Color collection; in Brazil Prisma collection). The first I remember was a Brazilian translation of a kind of "Children's Book of Dinosaurs" or "Golden Book of Dinosaurs", or some title like it. Iguanodon was dark-green and has a dorsal crest of small plates from tail to neck.

By Joao Lopes (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

I'm obviously ancient in this crowd, but I'm realizing that, although I remember having several dinosaur books as a kid (it's how I learned to read), the imagery I most remember was from Dell and Gold Key's Turok, Son of Stone!

>One I just remembered from those hazy early 80's, was William Stout's pic of a Quetzalcoatlus in The Dinosaurs.
>Evil-looking and emaciated! Tried to find a scan via google but no luck. :-(

Here's a photo of "The Shadow" from my copy of The Dinosaurs. http://www.flickr.com/photos/cryptonaut/4659675195/in/set-7215762414718…

It's not the sharpest photo ever, but you can still see Stout's Quetzalcoatlus in all its skeletal glory. Bone structure is heavily emphasized in most of the illustrations in this book, but here Stout turns it up to eleven!

Kwetsal? uh uh. Ketsal - as in the bird: Quetzal. In Spanish, IIRC, it's a "K" sound, now a "KW" as in English.

Just one more thing wrong with that last pic.

Speaking of Quetzalcoatlus Darren, do you have any comment on the new paper out by Henderson that says that Quetzalcoatlus must have been flightless due to its size? I find the arguement of the paper to be somewhat flawed, because a) if Quetzalcoatlus was a flightless species of pterosaur, why did it keep the insanely long wing finger, b) Henderson seems to be of the persuasion that most pterosaurs were coastal species, and therefore Quetzalcoatlus' inland habits were evidence of its flightlessness, and c) he also uses bird flight sizes as limits to pterosaur flight sizes, combined with the claim that the only reason Pteranodon was able to get so big was because it flew on sea currents.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

Kwetsal? uh uh. Ketsal - as in the bird: Quetzal.

Not just that -- they give the pronunciation as "Kwet-sal-co-at-lus". I've been pronouncing it (those few times I've said it aloud) as "Ket-sal-co-at-'l-us" or "Ket-sal-co-a-tl-us" with a Nahuatl "tɬ" sound before the "us".

Dr. Naish, how do you pronounce it?

By Murgatroyd (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

Regarding Don Henderson's new paper (see comment 23), here is what Mark Witton said in the previous Tet Zoo pterosaur article...

Don's recent work on Quetzalcoatlus, as suggested by Jamie, is based on a very outdated (and, even for that time, poorly reconstructed) Quetz. that has a torso twice as long as it should do. If you scale it appropriately, the adjusted mass hits the same rough area as those of Greg Paul, Mike Habib, Jim Cunnigham and me.

His comment first appeared here. So there we have it. As will be clear from the next Tet Zoo article, I have a vested interest in Don's 3D models, but I'm in agreement with Mark that Don's azhdarchid isn't quite right.

As for the pronunciation of Quetzalcoatlus, people who know how to pronounce quetzal correctly generally get it right (and those who don't, don't): it's something like 'ket-zal-khwhat-lus'. Definitely not 'kwet-zel'.

Jason: Thanks a bunch for the pic! Aah, the evil green eyes of the Q monster!

What looks like the complete lack of muscles or connective tissue on the body or wings is just freaky. Surely the whole point of the attachments on the scapula and lumpy humerus is to be covered in muscle tissue?

Cool pic though! The shadow's size used to freak me out as a kid. "It's bigger than a sauropod!" Cue discussions with parents on forced perspective.


Ah, interesting; I'd always said ket-zal-coh-wattle-us. It's meant to be four syllables then?

Re: "dragon-head support" - that is REALLY odd.

By William Miller (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

Huh, it never occurred to me that there's no W in Quetzal. Makes sense. But in any case, I hardly ever pronounce it.

Re the Stout pic, it can't be all forced perspective unless that thing's flying very close to the sun (the shadow's much bigger than the sauropods). That would explain why it looks all crispy, but not why its wings haven't melted yet. Stout must have been a fan of Japanese prints, I can't help thinking.

These books are all after/before my time; my first dino books (Dinosaurs of the Earth and The How and Why Wonder Book...) are from the 60s, and I didn't get back to palaeo until the late 80s (the first dinosaur book I ever bought was Bakker's).

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

Somewhat unrelated: at the university library a few months ago, I spotted a well-worn copy of "Dragons of the Air." I may have to steal it. I can't IMAGINE that too many people in Anchorage check that book out.

I remember first seeing Quetzalcoatlus in the Dinotopia books. I wonder how much weight they could really carry.

For once, I'm glad I re-checked the comments! Thanks, Tamara! That is too cool!

By Zach Miller (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

I had that book when little! I had forgotten the title - I wish I had retained it. I used to enjoy reading it and looking at the illustrations.