Pterosaurs, err, indoors (the Summer 2010 exhibition)


In the previous article I discussed the outside section of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition's pterosaur display (hosted at Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank). The exhibition (which finished on July 4th, sorry) incorporated three flying, life-sized azhdarchids - suspended from the two adjacent building - as well as two walking ones (the latter roughly reproducing Mark's terrestrial stalking scene).

But there was much more to the exhibit than this: it also had an indoor component. The main feature was a wall covered with life-sized pterosaur heads: it looked great, sort of like a wall of trophy heads...


Included were a pink Pterodaustro, Stan (apparently) the female Dimorphodon, Rhamphorhynchus, Tupuxuara deliradamus, short-crested and long-crested Pteranodons, an antlered nyctosaur, Istiodactylus (it looked like a nightmarish goose, and I don't mean that as a negative comment) and a few of hell's cassowaries (by which I mean tapejarids, and I'm stealing a term Mark Witton invented).


The Thalassodromeus model is impressive purely because of its incredible size [shown below], and the Coloborhynchus just looks awesome because of this animal's incredible teeth [shown here]. What makes Coloborhynchus particularly weird is that - in addition to teeth lining its jaws - it also has a pair of teeth that project forward from the blunt anterior face of the rostrum. A peculiar depression is also present on that blunt anterior face, and is located ventral to the tooth pair. That's really weird. A similar condition is present in the substantially younger Uktenadactylus from Texas (Rodrigues & Kellner 2008), but in that animal the depression is dorsal to the first tooth pair.

Having mentioned Thalassodromeus... if you've been following the debate on thalassodromid taxonomy (thalassodromid = the correct name for the 'tupuxuarids'), I should take this opportunity to note that Dave Martill and I have both long given up on the idea that Thalassodromeus and Tupuxuara might be congeneric (Martill & Naish 2006). I should also take this opportunity to remind everyone that the hypothesis of skim-feeding in Thalassodromeus has been thoroughly tested and found wanting (Humphries et al. 2007), so people should really stop promoting it as a likely behaviour for these animals.


As mentioned previously, you'll note that these models encapsulate some new ideas on pterosaur behaviour and biology. Gone are the old days when every single pterosaur is a fish-eater that lives at the seaside. The colours and demeanour of the istiodactylid hint at the idea that this was a terrestrial carnivore of some sort; possibly a carrion eater. The brownish hues of the dimorphodontid are in keeping with the hypothesis that these pterosaurs were able climbers that hunted in forested environments. Tapejarids were not cliff-dwelling auk-analogues, but most likely forest-dwelling pterosaurs that behaved something like hornbills, so the two tapejarids included on the wall (Tupandactylus imperator and 'Tapejara' navigans) have a very 'terrestrial' look.

We also had a selection of real and replica pterosaur bones and a giant pterosaur phylogeny plotted against time. Erwin Meerman very kindly loaned two models - a Dimorphodon and Anhangeura - for the duration. They were excellent: beautiful, incredibly detailed and lifelike.


You can't host a major, neat event in London and not attract a long list of notable persons. Partly because the third International Palaeontological Congress was happening at the same time, a lot of palaeontologists were in town and many dropped by to have a look. It was great to catch up with Taissa Rodrigues and talk pterosaurs; Lorna Steel, Susie Lanaway, Victoria Herridge, Angela Milner and many others dropped by as well.



On Thursday, David Attenborough visited the exhibition. I'm dead serious. It wasn't just a social call - he was there for filming reasons, and spent time chatting with Mark on camera (I presume about azhdarchids: image above by Lauren Pearce). I missed all of this. I always miss The Attenborough. Ed Yong - that's Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science - also visited and we hung out, talking about science blogging and so on.

Not only was the event a great success in terms of promoting pterosaurs, science and the University of Portsmouth, it was also a fantastic social event and we - by which I mean the whole UoP team - all had a great time. Getting the whole thing dismantled and packed away at the end of the exhibition was quite an adventure; we had to get those three flying azhdarchids down to the ground, had to pack away the whole of both the outdoor and indoor sections of the exhibit, and had to move all the azhdarchids a long way to a storage area. That's a lot of work... and it meant no sleep.

Some other stuff: Ethiopian wolves and air penguins

While, naturally, I've only written about the Pterosaurs: Dragons of the Air display, the festival included loads of other fascinating exhibits that were well worth a look. I particularly liked the University of Oxford's stall on emerging infections. Ethiopian wolves Canis simensis have been infected with rabies transmitted by domestic dogs, so efforts are underway to vaccinate the dogs and hence prevent disease transmission to the wolves. Success has been limited due to increasing human and domestic dog populations.

My personal highlight was the unbelievable air penguin created by the German engineering company Festo. If you don't know what air penguins are (Festo also makes air rays and air jellies, as well as machines that swim underwater), now might be the time to find out. Here are some still photos... videos are available online (many are on youtube) and are well worth checking out.


So there we have it. What next for the UoP pterosaur exhibition? I believe there are plans - understandably, the main problem with this exhibit is moving it around (the transport costs are high). But if you're interested in hosting it, contact me and I can pass your requests on to those in charge.

Finally, thanks indeed to Dave Martill, Mark Witton and Bob Loveridge for setting it all up, making it all happen and allowing me to be involved, and well done and thanks to everyone else who helped in the event, or made it as fun as it was: Alex Ayling, Nathan Barling, Liz Bowen, Christopher Callaghan, Graeme Elliott, Luke 'ewok' Hauser, Richard Hing ("You will respect ma authorata"), Georgia Maclean-Henry, Benjamin Moon, Kirsty 'flute' Morgan, Charlie 'flute # 2' Navarro, Michael O'Sullivan, Lauren 'krazy badge lady' Pearce, Emily Percival, Jack Taylor, Steven Vidovic, Robert 'Schneider' Winn-Rossiter, and also John Conway, Mike Hanson, Neil Phillips and Luis Rey [various of these people are shown in the pics below; first image by Alex Ayling]. Apologies to anyone I've forgotten.




For previous articles on the University of Portsmouth/Royal Society pterosaur exhibition, see...

If you haven't done so, check out the articles at here and here. And for more pterosaur awesomeness on Tet Zoo, see...

Refs - -

Humphries, S., Bonser, R. H. C., Witton, M. P. & Martill, D. M. 2007. Did pterosaurs feed by skimming? Physical modelling and anatomical evaluation of an unusual feeding method. PLoS Biology 5, No. 8, e204 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050204

Martill, D. M. & Naish, D. 2006. Cranial crest development in the azhdarchoid pterosaur Tupuxuara, with a review of the genus and tapejarid monophyly. Palaeontology 49, 925-941.

Rodrigues, T. & Kellner, A. W. A. 2008. Review of the pterodactyloid pterosaur Coloborhynchus. Zitteliana B 28, 219-228.


More like this

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…
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…
Today see the launch of an outstanding new website devoted entirely to pterosaurs, the flying reptiles of the Mesozoic. What makes the site different from many specialist sources on the internet is that it was created, written and designed by specialists in the field. As such, it should prove an…
Earlier this year the awesome new ornithocheiroid pterosaur Zhenyuanopterus longirostris Lü, 2010 was described from the Yixian Formation of Liaoning Province, China. It has pretty incredible teeth, as well as a very interesting premaxillary crest... And it has a lot of teeth: 86 in total in the…

Thanks for the great write-ups, Darren. Details on the production of the models, and no doubt some embarrassing pictures of the UoP pterosaur team, will follow on Pterosaur.Net soon.

This looks absolutely fantastic although I'm gutted to have missed it - I was passing through next week and hoping to see it not realising it was already over. Hopefully it will find a more permanent home somewhere (seems like the sort of thing which might find a long term home next to RBG Kew's evolution house or outside the NHM).

In future Witton artwork though I hope the scale figure will include up-to-date rockstar hair and a cravatte.

I am gutted that I missed all of this - I was otherwise detained last weekend and had planned to go along this weekend, having thought that it would still be running. Ah, assumption, mother of all mistakes....

Ditto tai haku's comment re: permanent home.

Sorry for my ghastly ignorance (having always favoured warm, animate study subjects), but among the pictured heads is one that looks like a scarlet ibis biting a cushion. Can someone tell me what it is and, more importantly, how it may have fed? Are those teeth??

I am so disappointed I wasn't back in the UK to have seen this. Looks like it was fantastic.

So sad to have missed it. Any chance this will become a traveling exhibit? And if so, any chance it will come to North America? Pretty please?

Incredible work, and congrats to everyone involved.

By Zach Miller (not verified) on 08 Jul 2010 #permalink


I believe you are referring to the Pterodaustro, and, yes, those are teeth. It is thought to have been a filter feeder. (The reddish hue is probably inspired by flamingoes.)


Recurring role in brand new series on Discovery produced by large NYC based production company.

CHARACTER DESCRIPTION: Everyman relatable guy character interning in an oddity collectible shop finds himself a fish out of water in this place filled with curiosities. Not nerdy but definitely your average likable guy. Not looking for overly quirky or eccentric. Must be dynamic and able to handle any situation.

Age range: college, plays no older than 24.

NO: SAG, AFTRA, nerds, metrosexuals, models

Commitment: 5 days a week, full availability for the entire months of August and September

Please send headshot and resume to

By Leftfield Pictures (not verified) on 08 Jul 2010 #permalink

Am I the only one that thinks that Witton looks like a rock star?

Congrats on the exhibit!

By Eric Dolha (not verified) on 08 Jul 2010 #permalink

Did Attenborough work with you guys on his new documentary"

'His trip the Bass, however, will showcase the most modern technology ever employed in a wildlife feature. Filmed exclusively for Sky's new 3D digital television channel, 'Flying Monsters' will be screened in IMAX cinemas, before being transmitted to homes across the country.

The film, which has been written by Sir David, focuses on pterosaurs, flying vertebrates with a wingspan of up to 45 feet who lived 200 million years ago.'

If ever there was wonderful showcase for your models, this would be it.

I see Darren you and friends had a great time, but not much actual info about beasts themselves for us!

"Coloborhynchus (..) has a pair of teeth that project forward"

Specialized weapon for intraspecific fighting? Piercing rival wing membranes and air sacs? Can't think of anything else.

Hippo bulls have slightly similar arrangement of long, curved side incisors and sharp forward-facing lower incisors. And they draw blood like a razor!

Jerzy: grooming? Was going to mention it, but thought it too speculative. Plus, other pterosaurs got by fine without similar structures.

Wow I wish I could have gone to London to see that, Pterosaurs are my favorite extinct vertebrates and maybe this exhibit will finally correct all those crappy drawings of naked "lizard bats" that are still common in the USA. It always surprises me that most people don't realize that pterosaurs had "fur" and that Pteranodon had neither a tail or teeth!


You don't want nerds, and you post this here?

Think before you post.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 09 Jul 2010 #permalink

Grooming? Pretty useless basing on what we know about pterosaur intergument.

I wonder if the said pair of teeth is positioned much closer together than neighboring teeth, so the distance is smaller than width of one tooth?

This could be an adaptation found in ungulate horns and similar, where weapon is designed also to block the rival.

Good test would be dimorphism in these teeth (males vs females and juveniles) but I guess there is too few specimens.

Jerzy: why would having two small, anteriorly projecting teeth be a useless thing when your body is covered in hair? And, as you've guessed, sample size is not nearly good enough to say anything useful about dimorphism or any other form of variation.

Because they are too thick and not parallel. Try to comb your own hair with a similar thing! :)

I don't see how you can know that. The teeth were approximately parallel, and I cannot see that they are 'too thick' to function in grooming. I'm not saying that they necessarily did play a vital role in grooming, but I am saying that you can't dismiss this possibility; at least, not for now.

I would have warned against allowing Darren and Ed in close proximity. With the world's two brightest stars of science blogging in the same room, there was great danger of forming a science-blogging black hole from which neither of you, or indeed any more posts, could ever escape. Fortunately disaster was averted, and a memorable photo resulted instead.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

Where did the damn spammers come from? First time I've seen that here. At least Pauli is remotely thematic with the schizophrenic crackpot angelfire-looking dinosaur page, but boguz1987@gmail? Really? That's kind of vindictive to drop that big a hint to the rubes that respond. Friggin' creep.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 17 Jul 2010 #permalink