In a recent paper by Hone, Naish and Cuthill (2011) the authors reviewed the available evidence for the functions of “ornithodiran” [a paraphyletic taxon] cranial crests. They concluded that mutual sexual selection presents a valid hypothesis for their presence and distribution.
Why Did They Feature Pterosaurs?
In their section on pterosaurs Hone, Naish and Cuthill (2011) noted that the majority of pterosaur taxa are known from single specimens (Unwin 2005) “and as a result it cannot generally be determined if crests were present in both sexes.”
Then they went on to reference Bennett’s work (1992, 1994) promoting sexual dimorphism, but that has been falsified. And it doesn’t support their hypothesis.
They referenced the crestless Darwinopterus with egg (Lu et al. 2011), and reported that it was identical in size to conspecific crested individuals, but actually differences abound and the two are not conspecific. And it doesn’t support their hypothesis.
Hone, Naish and Cuthill (2011) reference adolescent development of a bony crest in thalassodromids (Martill and Naish 2006), but this example indicates that crests developed long before half adult size had been reached and therefore long before the individual had become interested in sex.
Hone, Naish and Cuthill (2011) referenced strong allometric growth of the crest in Pteranodon (Tomkins et al. 2010), suggesting a role that only becomes relevant after maturity, but that has been falsified as noted earlier. All tritosaurs, including Pteranodon, developed isometrically.
Hone, Naish and Cuthill (2011) reported that the coincident appearance of a structure with maturity is a hallmark of a role in sexual selection. True enough. But the authors failed to show that the appearance of crests in pterosaurs was ontogenetic, rather than phylogenetic. Moreover, they failed to show that both genders sported crests, which was their hypothesis of mutual sexual selection. To support that hypothesiss, I would have reported that every known Dsungaripterus sports the same crest, for instance. Then add in all the Tapejara, Tupuxuara and Thallasodromeus skulls. They could all be male, but the odds are stacked against that.
I Don’t Have any Problem with Mutual Sexual Selection in Pterosaurs
All the present evidence indicates that crests developed in certain pterosaur species only, without regard for age or gender. That indicates mutual sexual selection. So why, then, did Hone, Naish and Cuthill (2011) reference those several cases of sexual dimorphism? It doesn’t make sense given their headline and hypothesis.
Nits and Picks
Hone, Naish and Cuthill (2011, fig. 1) reported that no birds had crests. Actually the hornbill and cassowary have them (not counting roosters and cockatiels).
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 1992. Sexual dimorphism of Pteranodon and other pterosaurs, with comments on cranial crests. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 12: 422–434.
Bennett SC 1994. Taxonomy and systematics of the Late Cretaceous pterosaur Pteranodon (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea). Occassional Papers of the Natural History Museum University of Kansas 169: 1–70.
Hone DWE Naish D and Cuthill IC 2011. Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs? Lethaia, DOI: 10.1111/j.1502-3931.2011.00300.x
Lü J, Unwin DM, Deeming DC, Jin X, Liu Y and Ji Q 2011. An egg-adult association, gender, and reproduction in pterosaurs. Science, 331(6015): 321-324. doi:10.1126/science.1197323
Martill DM and Naish D 2006. Cranial crest development in the azhdarchoid pterosaur Tupuxuara, with a review of the genus and tapejarid monophyly. Palaeontology 49, 925-941.
Tomkins JL, Lebas NR, Witton MP, Martill DM and Humphries S 2010. Positive allometry and the prehistory of sexual selection. The American Naturalist 176, 141–148.
Unwin DM 2005. The Pterosaurs: From Deep Time. Pi Press, New York.