Sharovipteryx and the Origin of Pterosaurs

The bizarre hind-wing glider, Sharovipteryx mirabilis, has confounded and intrigued paleontologists since 1971 when Alexander G. Sharov first described it. The most prominent aspects of the fossil are the extremely long hind limbs, trailed by extensive extradermal membranes called uropatagia. While several readily visible aspects of Sharovipteryx immediately recall pterosaurs (attenuated tail, longer tibia than femur, hollow bones, elongated ilium. sacrum of way more than two vertebrae, elongated pedal 5.1, dermal membranes, among others), the reduced forelimbs were cause for concern in a pterosaur sister taxon.

 

Sharovipteryx mirabilis

Figure 1. Sharovipteryx mirabilis in various views. Click to learn more.

Poorly preserved?
Sharovipteryx
has been described as “poorly preserved” even though the finest details are preserved in its extradermal membranes. The skull is crushed, but all the details are visible. Insects are preserved with and within Sharovipteryx. A beetle lies nearby. A winged ant or wasp is found in the skull. Shcherbakov (2008) described the Lagerstätte formation from which Sharovipteryx was found. The paleoenvironment (Madygen Formation, Osh Region in Kyrgyzstan, Early Triassic, 228 mya) may be reconstructed as an intermontane river valley in seasonally arid climate, with mineralized oxbow lakes and ephemeral ponds on the floodplain. After amber, it may be the best formation for preserving insects.

Early Errors
Peters (2000) attempted to trace the skull elements of Sharovipteryx, but I assumed the split at the back of the skull must have been a pterygoid. Instead it represents a domed cranium. In my rookie year as a paleontologist, I made several mistakes, this one among them. Later I was able to discern and correct my error. I also found more elements of the forelimb. All these can be seen here. No one else has attempted a detailed tracing and identification of the elements before or since.

Subsequent Corrections
There is word that some further preparation has occurred, according to Hone and Benton (2007), who reported, “In any case, the true arms of Sharovipteryx have now been found buried in the matrix (R. R. Reisz, pers. comm., 2003) and this confirms that Peters (2000) supposed arm was incorrectly identified.” It is not clear that Hone and Benton (2007) actually had access to the data itself, but in their zeal to discredit Peters (2000) they latched onto this hearsay. Unfortunately, the Reisz data have not been made available and have not been published in the eight years that have followed. Concurrently, as mentioned earlier, I was able to correct earlier mistakes. The forelimb elements I found matched left to right and fell in line in all morphological aspects between the two sister taxa of Sharovipteryx, Cosesaurus and Longisquama (Peters 2006). These included a tiny pteroid and preaxial carpal, bones otherwise found only in fenestrasaurs, including pterosaurs. I also identified prepubic bones and a hyper-elongated ilium in Sharovipteryx. These traits are also restricted to fenestrasaurs including pterosaurs. Prepubes acted like elongated pubes, adducting the sprawling hind limbs.

The pelvis and prepubes of Sharovipteryx.

Figure 2. The pelvis and prepubes of Sharovipteryx.

Truncated Studies
Following his  studies of the uropatagia in Sordes (Unwin DM and Bakhurina NN 1994), Dr. David Unwin (2000a, b, c) flirted briefly with Sharovipteryx as a pterosaur sister taxon, but has ignored it ever since. Unfortunately in his update he used Sharov’s own figure from 1971, rather than providing an updated figure.

In his book, The Pterosaurs From Deep Time, Unwin 2006 asked if Sharovipteryx could be ancestral to pterosaurs, then answered, “Probably not. Because it is almost the same geological age as early pterosaurs and, with its remarkably long neck, already highly specialized.” While referencing nearly every other paper and worker on pterosaurs, all papers written by yours truly (Peters 2000 and 2002 among them) were overlooked and ignored. Rather he opted to continue the old paradigm that, “pterosaurs sit in splendid isolation, definitely related to, but somehow remote from, other diapsids.” Unwin said there was no antorbital fenestra and the arms were extraordinarily short and small. While the latter is true, the former is not. Unwin never performed a cladistic analysis with Sharovipteryx and other pterosaur ancestor candidates to test the results of Peters (2000).

Following Gans et al. (1987), Dyke et al. (2006) described Sharovipteryx as a “delta-wing” flyer. Unfortunately they provided no evidence of membranes anterior to the hindlimb, but imagined them instead.

With such small forelimbs and such long hindlimbs, Sharovipteryx would have been a full-time biped, a fact that has been largely overlooked. As a biped, Sharovipteryx could have done other things with its forelimbs, such as gliding and flapping.

Sharovipteryx would have been a consummate glider. The enlarged hyoids extended the neck skin into strakes (leading edge root extensions), an aerodynamic structure found on several modern jet fighters. The ribs extended laterally, forming a small round pancake. Manual digit 4 extended further than the other digits. Since both sister taxa (Cosesaurus and Longisquama) had trailing edge membranes, it is likely that Sharovipteryx also had them. Rather than a delta wing, the membranes had a deeper chord distally, creating a canard wing configuration.

Due to the stem-like coracoid and strap-like scapula, Sharoviptyerx likely flapped its forelimbs, not only to show excitement and attract attention when grounded, but to create thrust and lift when aloft. The large, fiber embedded uropatagia that trailed the sprawling hind limbs of Sharovipteryx provided the majority of lift and extended through the center of balance. Other tiny membranes extended anterior to the lower tibia and mid femur. Longisquama was similar in configuration, but with longer forelimbs. Pterosaurs were also similar, but with even longer wing fingers.

The hind legs of Sharovipteryx provide a good model for the configuration of most pterosaurs, sprawling in flight. On land, whenever the knees were lower than the hip socket, which was probably typical, the right angled knees returned the ankles to beneath the torso, as in pterosaurs.

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.

References:
Dyke G, Nudds RL and Rayner JMV 2006. Flight of Sharovipteryx mirabilis: the world’s first delta-winged glider. Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
Gans C, Darevski I, and Tatarinov LP 1987. Sharovipteryx. A reptilian glider? Paleobiology 13(4):415–426.
Hone DWE and Benton MJ 2007. An evaluation of the phylogenetic relationships of the pterosaurs to the archosauromorph reptiles. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 5:465–469.
Peters, D. 2000b. Description and Interpretation of Interphalangeal Lines in Tetrapods.  Ichnos 7(1):11-41.
Peters D 2000.
 
A Redescription of Four Prolacertiform Genera and Implications for Pterosaur Phylogenesis. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia 106 (3): 293–336.
Peters D 2002. A New Model for the Evolution of the Pterosaur Wing—with a twist. Historical Biology 15:277-301.
Peters D 2006. The Front Half of Sharovipteryx. Prehistoric Times 76: 10-11.
Shcherbakov DE 2008. Madygen, Triassic Lagerstätte number one, before and after Sharov. Alavesia 2:113-124. online pdf
Senter P 2003. Taxon Sampling Artifacts and the Phylogenetic Position of Aves. PhD dissertation. Northern Illinois University, 1-279.
Sharov AG 1971. New flying reptiles from the Mesozoic of Kazakhstan and Kirghizia. – Transactions of the Paleontological Institute, Akademia Nauk, USSR, Moscow, 130: 104–113 [in Russian].
Unwin DM 2000a. Sharovipteryx: what can it tell us about the origin of pterosaurs?
48th Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, Portsmouth,
England, Monday 28 Aug. – Sunday 3 September.
(http://www.soft.net.uk/richardforrest/svpca2000/svpca2000.page.intro.html)
Unwin DM 2000b. Sharovipteryx and its significance for the origin of the pterosaur
flight apparatus. 5th European Workshop on Vertebrate Palaeontology, 27.6.2000
– 1.7.2000, Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe (SMNK) Erbprinzenstr.
13 D-76133 Karlsruhe Germany (http://www.alettra.de/ewvp5/index.htm)
Unwin DM 2006. The Pterosaurs from Deep Time. Pi Press, New York, NY.
Unwin DM and Bakhurina NN 1994. Sordes pilosus and the nature of the pterosaur flight apparatus. Nature 371: 62-64.
Unwin DM, Alifanov VR and Benton MJ 2000. Enigmatic small reptiles from the Middle Triassic of Kirgizia, pp. 177–186. In: Benton M. J., Unwin D. M. & Kurochin E. “The age of Dinosaurs in Russia and Magnolia”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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