Giant pterosaurs invade London, Summer 2010

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 I took nearly 600 photos and have included a good selection here and in the following (as-yet-unpublished) article.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 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 here and here.

For more pterosaur awesomeness on Tet Zoo, see...

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


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During the June and July of 2010 I and a host of friends and colleagues based at, or affiliated with, the University of Portsmouth attended the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. As you'll know if you saw the articles and pictures I posted here at Tet Zoo, our research group set up and…
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…
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Great blog post, Darren! Informative AND humourous! I'm sure this will be a great read for people who didn't manage to make it to this awesome event.

By Lauren Pearce (not verified) on 07 Jul 2010 #permalink

Way cool!

Looks awesome! I wish we had something similar here in Singapore. We do get exhibitions of animatronic dinosaur models at the Singapore Science Centre and elsewhere once in a while, but these are mostly inaccurate, and we get comparatively very little content and information.

Any chance that this pterosaur exhibition will go on a world tour? I wonder how durable the pterosaur models are though.

It would be awesome to see a similar exhibition like this done for other groups, such as one showing the diversity and evolution of whales or elephants (that would be definitely require a lot of space), or one devoted to the crocodilians.


Maybe the best way to do it would be a touring show (something I might see in my lifetime since it doesn't look like I'll be leaving the USA) followed by a retirement for the materials at a cool college campus. A boy can dream, right?

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 07 Jul 2010 #permalink

I do not think cats are mentioned in the Bible...


Seconded through thirtiethed.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 07 Jul 2010 #permalink

Very cool.

Needs to be both an immersive museum installation and a traveling exhibit.

Someone needs to produce pterosaur kites both large and small to fly over the exhibit and to sell to finance further research.

"...too cowardly..."

"...virtually all of the people who hold creationist views have no interest whatsoever in the natural world or the diversity of life."

Never let it be said that the rational humanists make emotional, untested generalisations, eh?

Darren, if you're going to criticise people for blinkered, biased knee-jerks, it might help if you don't use any yourself to do so. Makes a bad impression, dontcherknow.

A bit late to suck up now, maybe, but: excellent sculptures. I'd've liked to have seen them in person.

By Warren B. (not verified) on 07 Jul 2010 #permalink

Warren B: without getting into an argument about creationism (you do know that creationism is an effort to actively erode scientific curiosity and activity, right?), I should state that my opinions are not blinkered and biased knee-jerks, but based on data. Namely, data which shows that populations and countries with high levels of creationist belief have a proportionally low interest in science, natural history and such. I confess that I have also been inspired by personal experience: people who hold strong religious views tend (as a generalisation) to be uninterested in the natural world; conversely, groups of people interested in nature, natural history and biology tend (as a generalisation) not to hold strong religious views.

As others said, this needs to be done into something fixed, and something travelling, as it is too good to just be temporary...

By the way, what would it mean for azdharchids the habit of modern herons of swallowing quite large things whole... such as rabbits and the like. Dangerous to men if alive, maybe?

By Eriorguez (not verified) on 07 Jul 2010 #permalink

Yeah, my brother told me he sat and watched a heron swallow six large fish in a row, one after the other. There was that TetZoo post about them being willing to bite off more than they can chew...

Assuming they have an appetite like a heron, I'm sure they'd go for a modestly sized human. But we're not streamlined and have harder bones than a fish, so it would probably choke and die. Human children, on the other hand, would probably be a tasty treat. CHOMP.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 08 Jul 2010 #permalink

On the contrary, it'd make a great traveling exhibition.

Nothing to prevent Portsmouth from producing an educational narrative video/CD that uses these models, eh?

Generate some interesting materials for schools and Dinophiles, recoup a bit of money to go into your next model project.

Add me in as another vote for a global traveling exhibition to Natural Museums..but you may want to link up with other paleontologists building similar display/educational models, and find a 'producer' company to handle the transport, scheduling, etc (SAIC does this in the US, for example).

Many thanks for the detailed exhibit description, background info and photos.

You mention that pycnofibers were noticed as early as the 60s. I don't think I've heard this before--unless this refers to Sordes. Can you tell us more, or post a link with more detail on this subject?

By Pete Ross (not verified) on 09 Jul 2010 #permalink

Pete... there are actually quite a few references to the presence of integumentary fibres/hairs/pycnofibers in pterosaurs prior to the description of Sordes: the 1960s reference I had in mind was Leich (1964). This paper described follicles, hair bundles and single hairs preserved in Solnhofen Rhamphorhynchus. During the 1920s and 30s, Broili reported pycnofibers in Dorygnathus, Rhamphorhynchus and Pterodactylus (Broili 1927, 1938, 1939) and Wiman (1925) suggested that integumentary pits previously reported in Rhamphorhynchus by Wanderer (in 1908) were the remains of hair. Nowadays, we mostly think that Sharovâs 1971 paper was the genesis of our ideas about hair in pterosaurs, but this is not really true.

Refs - -

Broili, F. 1927. Ein Rhamphorhynchus mit Spuren von Haarbedeckung. Bayerische Akademie Wissenschaften, Mathematik, und Natur-wissenschaften, abteilung 1927, 49-67.

- . 1938. Beobachtungen an Pterodactylus. Bayerische Akademie Wissenschaften, München 1938, 139-154.

- . 1939. Ein Dorygnathus mit Hautresten. Bayerische Akademie Wissenschaften, Mathematik, und Natur-wissenschaften, abteilung 1939, 129-132.

Leich, L. 1964. Ein Rhamphorhynchus-Rest mit wohlerhaltener Flughaut. Aufschluà 15 (2), 41-43.

Wiman, C. 1925. Ãber Dorygnathus und andere Flugsaurier. Bulletin of the Geological Institute of the University of Uppsala 19, 23-54.

Thanks Darrin, very interesting.

By Pete Ross (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

Hey Darren-
These things look amazing, and I wish I was there to see them. However, since I'm not, and given the kind of person I am, here I offer a minor critique: something about the heads is a little off. I think it is the fact that the pseudo-hair is the same length all over the body, including the head. It gives it kind of a plush-animal look. Usually, around the head the feathers/fur of animals is different from the body textures, usually finer and shorter, especially in extant flying archosaurs...unless examples can be provided showing otherwise.
Perhaps it's like an uncanny-valley problem- they're so close to looking lifelike, a small thing becomes noticeable.

esp. around eyes and beak edge.

In the Name of God
Darren Naish!
please send me your Email address.

I am wait your Email.

Best Regards, Amin Khaleghparast(a biologist from IRAN)

my Email address:


Which section?

And Naturwissenschaften "(natural) sciences" lacks a hyphen.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 28 Oct 2010 #permalink

please send me your Email address.

Scroll to the top of the page and click on "Contact".

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 28 Oct 2010 #permalink

That Broili (1939) reference is cited in several ways by different authors, and like most authors I've just copied what others have done before me. Kellner et al. recently cited it as...

Broili, F. 1939. Ein Dorygnathus mit Hautresten. Sitzungs-Berichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Abteilung 1939, 129â132.

Are you sure the journal had 'sections' back then?

In the Name of God
Darren Naish!
what is your Email address?
why do not you answer to my questions?

I am wait your Email.

Best Regards, Amin Khaleghparast(a biologist from IRAN)

my Email address:

Amin, are you too stupid to read comment 23?

Are you sure the journal had 'sections' back then?

"Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Abteilung" = "mathematical/scientific section".

Probably it's a section ( = department) of the academy, not of the journal... no, wait, most likely of both.

"Session reports of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences" is what the rest of the title means, where "sciences" includes the humanities ("sciences of the mind" as opposed to the "sciences of nature" mentioned in the name of the section).

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 02 Dec 2010 #permalink