Jeholopterus, the Vampire Pterosaur

Just another anurognathid?
Jeholopterus – 
IVPP V12705 (Wang et al. 2003) Late Jurassic/Early Cretaceous was a highly derived anurognathid with excellent preservation of bones, wings and other soft tissues, such as hair (pycnofibres). The enormous curved claws (like surgeon’s needles), the robust limbs, plus the powerful feet (like can openers) were easy to see and distinct from those of most anurognathid pterosaurs.

Figure 1. Click to enlarge. Comparing data gathering results using first-hand observation with the DGS method on the skull of Jeholopterus.. The digital outlines were then transferred into the reconstruction.

DGS solves the mystery of the skull. 
First-hand observations of the black, crushed skull of Jeholopterus resulted in a disappointing broad outline offering no possibility of a reconstruction (Figure 1 inset). On the other hand, the DGS (Digital Graphic Segregation) method was successful in segregating the chaotic jumble into separate bones (Figure 1). These could be digitally reconstructed into a skull (Figure 2) in which all the parts had symmetrical counterparts and all the parts fit precisely. DGS also enabled tracing of the tail from beneath various soft tissues. Note the palate bones had slid to the left toward the wrist and digit 1 of the right hand (in orange-red) was dislocated on top of the skull.

Jeholopterus in lateral view. This image supersedes others in having the coracoids extending laterally and other minor modifications.

Figure 2. Jeholopterus in lateral view. This image supersedes others in having the coracoids extending laterally and other minor modifications.

The reconstructed skull had an architecture that followed the patterns of other anurognathids (such as Anurognathus and Batrachognathus),  but with several important distinctions. Added together these traits  create  what appears to be our best candidate for a vampire pterosaur (Peters 2003). By all appearances, Jeholopterus was built to latch on to a dinosaur and sink its fangs between the tough scales and beneath the outer skin, probably at the most vulnerable corners and crevices. Here’s how the vampire hypothesis was put together, trait by trait.

The highly derived skull.
While the skull of Jeholopterus followed the pattern of other anurognathid pterosaurs, it also was quite specialized for its unique diet.  Jeholopterus had lost almost all of its upper teeth. Only a few stubby premaxillary teeth were present, but these were spanned by two large curved maxillary fangs. Moreover, these fangs were mounted on an upwardly curving jaw line, at right angles to the (atypical for pterosaurs) anteriorly leaning jaw joint. That jawline curve created the possibility of an enormous gape, similar in arc and shape to that of a rattlesnake. And we all know how a rattlesnake bites.The lower jaws rose up anteriorly to match that upper curve. The dentary teeth were no larger than the “teeth” on a pair of pliers, unable to pierce prey.


Figure 3. Click to enlarge. The skull of Jeholopterus. The palate bones are identified: pmx = premaxilla, mx = maxilla, q = quadrate,v = vomer, p = ectopalatine, pt = pterygoid, mxs = palatal process of the maxilla.

The vampire skull in action.
Anurognathid skulls were very fragile (less bone and more air than a typical pterosaur) and Jeholopterus was no different. Unusual for anurognathids, Jeholopterus had a robust palate reinforcing the roots of its twin fangs (Figure 2). The palate bones (vomers, ectopalatines (=fused ectopterygoid and palatine) and pterygoids) were shaped and arranged to distribute the forces of impact  from the front of the jaws to the sides and rear. Such an architecture tells us that Jeholopterus was banging its fangs on prey, probably to penetrate tough hide. The enormous gape permitted the lower jaw to get out of the way to maximize penetration. After the stabbing, the skull could roll forward, locking the fangs horizontally beneath the skin for maximum adhesion. With the jaw joint now elevated, the mandibles could close down on a  rise of skin behind the wound to “milk” the blood out. Remember, the lower teeth were incapable of penetration.

Surgeon’s needles for claws.
The robust limbs and extra-large claws could have been used to hold on to the bucking victim without getting shaken off. Adding the fangs made a total of five points of adhesion. The lengthening of metatarsal 5 provided more leverage for digit 5 to press against the victim’s skin, enabling toe claws 1-4 to flex and dig in deeper like an old-fashioned church key can opener. What more could a vampire pterosaur want?

How to deal with the inevitable flies. 
Since Jeholopterus would have been immobilized by its fangs and claws while feeding, it would have been defenseless against biting insects also attracted to the blood. To keep insects away, the pycnofibres (pterosaur hairs) were extra long and the tail could have been whipped around, like a horse’s tail to keep flies from landing.

The origin and evolution of blood-sucking in anurognathids.
The origin of vampirism in anurognathids was probably not much different than its origin in bats and vampire birds, including tickbirds. Anurognathids are widely considered to have been airborne insect-eaters due to their wide gaps and fragile skulls. Various insects, like flies and their maggots, are attracted to wounds on large mammals and we can presume that dinosaurs also carried bloody wounds at times. Anurognathids would have been attracted to such accumulations of blood-loving insects. Some anurognathids might have been attracted to the blood itself. A few, such as Jeholopterus, apparently skipped all the preliminaries and created its own wounds on dinosaur prey.

For those who don’t like technology
While the DGS/Photoshop technique has attracted a fair number of naysayers, the results should speak for themselves. The tracings of the bone in Jeholopterus revealed matching paired elements. Those were digitally transferred to the reconstruction and every bone fit. The bone shapes were similar to those in sister taxa. This is contra the results of Bennett (2007) who was unable to identify several bones and misidentified others using a camera lucida on a private anurognathid specimen. He reconstructed a monster skull unlike that of any other anurognathid.

Response to a criticism
Kellner et al. (2009) wrote: “Right after the description of J. ningchengensis by Wang et al. (2002), Peters (2002) argued that the wing membrane in the Chinese taxon did not reach the ankle but extended only to the elbow. However, despite the fact that no trailing edge of the posterior portion of the plagiopatagium is clearly discernible, an extensive portion of soft tissue that is attributable to the wing membrane is closely associated with the hind limbs, particularly with the tibiae (figure 3a). Apparently, Peters (2002), who based his studies on photographs, has only identified the limits of the actinopatagium that indeed terminate at the articulation of the humerus with radius and ulna, but the tenopatagium extends up to the ankle.” Below is their figure 3a, along with the complete plate. Yes, there is fossilized soft tissue there, as elsewhere around the bones (green areas). A closer look at the area shows the fibers near the left tibia are layed out in several directions, not just in the direction of the wing. Moreover, contra Kellner et al. (2009) the trailing edge of the wing is clearly defined (in yellow) all the way to the femur and identical to the wings of other distantly related pterosaurs, like Pterodactylus. Kellner et al. (2010) merely labeled areas within the fossil without defining borders of their hypothetical membrane, making sure that their closeup image did not include the trailing edge of the wing membrane that Peters (2002) had identified.

The purported tenopatagium of Jeholopterus

Figure 4. Click to enlarge. The purported tenopatagium of Jeholopterus. Note Kellner et al. 2010 cropped out the key portion of the trailing edge of the wing membrane that documents how narrow the wing becomes aft of the elbow. 

As always, I encourage readers to see specimens, make observations and come to your own conclusions. Test. Test. And test again.

Evidence and support in the form of nexus, pdf and jpeg files will be sent to all who request additional data.

Bennett SC 2007. A second specimen of the pterosaur Anurognathus ammoni. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 81(4):376-398.
Kellner AWA, Wang X, Tischlinger H, Campos DA, Hone DWE and Meng X 2010. The soft tissue of Jeholopterus (Pterosauria, Anurognathidae, Batrachognathinae) and the structure of the pterosaur wing membrane. Proc Royal Soc B 277: 321–329.
Peters D 2003. The Chinese vampire and other overlooked pterosaur ptreasures. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23(3): 87A.
Wang X, Zhou Z, Zhang F and Xu X 2002. A nearly completely articulated rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur with exceptionally well-preserved wing membranes and “hairs” from Inner Mongolia, northeast China. Chinese Science Bulletin 47(3): 226-230.



10 thoughts on “Jeholopterus, the Vampire Pterosaur

  1. I’ve been looking at photographs of vampire bat dentition, and there are actually some startling differences. Vampire bat teeth are much shorter and more robust, which (in theory) could be an adaptation to prevent damage if the host animal moves.

    Now, Jeholopterus’ teeth look poorly adapted to such a lifestyle. Its teeth are much thinner, and while they were definitely stabbing something, it looks as if the slightest bit of movement from a host would break them in half.

    Granted, the problem could hypothetically be avoided if the animal had an extreme gape and could embed its teeth deep within the skin of its host, but I personally doubt that.

    Is there any explanation you can think of to explain this? I don’t know too much about biomechanics myself, and all of what I’ve written is based on observation. Oh, and sorry for the long comment!

  2. Is it possible for jeholopterus (or whatever the plural form of Jeolopteus is) teeth to look longer due to tooth slippage? (same thing happened to sinornithosaurus) Tooth slippage is what happens to animal teeth due to their gums decomposing it is much harser to identify in archosaurs and sqamates than it is in mammals.

    • Tooth slippage? Sure. The root exposed. Sure. The two long teeth are only the cherry-on-top of the vampire hypothesis. Keys to the hypothesis are: 1) the long curved claws, like surgical needles for clinging to large hosts; 2) the robust build of the limbs for clinging to large hosts; 3) the feathered wing tips for silencing air flow, as in owls; 4) the large feathery dorsal extradermal membranes, also for a quiet approach, as in owls. 4) an ancestry of insectivory, drawing Jeholopterus to insect-infested wound; 5) the very short dentary teeth, like pliers teeth, that do no pierce the skin.

  3. If one of Jeolopterus fangs broke off (If my tooth slippage theory is false) could it possibly have eaten insects, small fish or fruit

    • Ancestors certainly ate insects. Jeholopterus seems to have been built to attach itself to larger hosts, where it might have eaten maggots hatched from eggs laid on bloody wounds. It’s a short step to becoming a bloody wound lapper from there. And the final step is to create its own small wounds. See other reply to your comment for more details. Tick birds are modern analogs.

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