Tail-Assisted Pitch Control in Lizards (and Pterosaurs)

A recent paper entitled “Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots and dinosaurs” (Libby et al. 2012) reported, “… lizards control the swing of their tails in a measured manner to redirect angular momentum from their bodies to their tails, stabilizing body attitude in the sagittal plane.” They also reported, “Our dynamics model revealed that a body swinging its tail experienced less rotation than a body with a rigid tail, a passively compliant tail or no tail.”

As in Dromaeosaurs
Libby et al. (2012) introduced their abstract with this statement, “In 1969, a palaeontologist proposed (Ostrom 1969) that theropod dinosaurs used their tails as dynamic stabilizers during rapid or irregular movements, contributing to their depiction as active and agile predators.” This hypothesis has been widely accepted. Archaeopteryx is an example of such a morphology.


Figure 1. Click to enlarge. Fenestrasaurs including Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx, Longisquama and pterosaurs

Applicable to Fenestrasaurs and Pterosaurs?
The stiff attenuated tail of Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx, Longisquama and basal pterosaurs bears strong similarities to the tail of Archaeopteryx and dromaeosaurs, especially so in derived long-tailed pterosaurs, like Rhamphorhynchus in which the various zygopophyses and chevrons elongated and intertwined with one another in much the same fashion leaving only the proximal caudals free to move. In birds the short tail and long tail feathers may flex dorsally and ventrally to enhance balance. The same seems to hold true for fenestrasaurs and pterosaurs (as lizards themselves). Both birds and fenestrsaurs largely reduced the caudofemoralis muscles and their bony caudal anchors diminishing the ability to swing the tail left and right.

The Arboreal Leaping Theory for the Origin of Pterosaurs
Bennett (1997) proposed a leaping behavior for the origin of pterosaurs. Bennett (1997) used hypothetical models. My studies with the increasingly long-legged and bipedal pterosaur ancestors Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx, Longisquama and MPUM 6009 confirm a leaping origin, with the addition of bipedal digitigrade locomotion (reversed in several derived pterosaurs). Libby et al. (2012) tested lizard leaping in the laboratory replicating behaviors that these fenestrasaurs likely practiced in the Triassic wild.

The most primitive pterosaur

Figure 2. Click to enlarge. The most primitive known pterosaur, the Milan specimen, MPUM 6009.

Elevating the Tail Permanently in Basal Pterosaurs
In lizards and derived pterosaurs the tail was held in line with the sacrum and dorsal vertebrae, but in Longisquama and basal pterosaurs (Fig. 2) the sacrum and posterior ilium was elevated distally, at right angles to the anterior ilium. This permanently elevated the base of the tail, similar enough to long-tailed lemurs and house cats. Despite the low mass of an attenuated fenestrasaur/pterosaur tail, elevation provided tail clearance from the substrate while standing with the shoulders elevated above the hips. It also moved the center of gravity anteriorly with dynamic possibilities (flight, with a center of balance at the shoulder joint). Thirdly a vane on the tail tip in derived long-tailed pterosaurs likely provided a secondary sexual signal, as blogged earlier.

Lowering the Tail Permanently in Derived Pterosaurs
Later pterosaurs reversed this early configuration, straightening out the posterior ilium and sacrum, perhaps as the proximal caudal vertebrae evolved more flexibility. An elevated tail would not have been as aerodynamic as an in-line tail so this was probably also a factor.

Bipedal lizard video marker

Figure 3. The Jayne lab documents bipedal locomotion in Callisaurus.

How Living Lizards Run Bipedally
The Bruce Jayne Lab in Cincinnati, Ohio, has produced a video of a zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus, Fig. 3) in fast quadrupedal and bipedal locomotion filmed on a treadmill. Note the horizontal configuration of the spine and tail, similar to the configuration reconstructed in Sharovipteryx. Compare this to the video of the basilisk (Jesus lizard) running more erect with an elevated tail, similar to the reconstruction of Longisquama (Fig. 1). Another living lizard, the Australian frilled lizard (Chlamydosaurus kingii, Fig. 4) also had an erect carriage when bipedal.

Chlamydosaurus, the Austrlian frill-neck lizard

Fig. 4 Chlamydosaurus, the Austrlian frill-neck lizard with an erect spine and elevated tail. Image courtesy of R. Shine, published in Peters 2000.

A Dynamic Tail and Probable Behaviour Patterns in Fenestrasaurs
Sharovipteryx did not have much of an elevated posterior ilium and tail (Fig. 1), but Longisquama did. The difference appears to be related to stance and problems with tail/substrate clearing due to stance. Sharovipteryx had such long hind limbs that tail clearance was not an issue. The morphology of Longisquama, with its short neck, large grasping hands and strong leaping legs has been compared to modern long-tailed lemurs, which actively leap from tree to tree and cling to vertical tree trunks. Basal pterosaurs were also likely tree clingers judging by their ability to grasp medial columns with forelimbs otherwise unable to pronate and supinate.

The Reduction of the Long Tail in Derived Pterosaurs
According to cladistic analysis the reduction of the long, stiff tail in basal pterosaurs occurred by convergence three times: 1) after the proto-anurognathid MCSNB 8950; 2) after Dorygnathus (SMNS 50164); after Dorygnathus (Up R 156) and 3) after Scaphognathus (the Maxberg specimen) (Fig. 5). The last of these is the only one in which the tail demonstrates extreme reduction in length and depth. Most workers agree that subtle refinements and improvements in aerodynamic abilities elsewhere in the pterosaur anatomy reduced the need for dynamic stablization from a long, stiff tail.

tail reduction in pterosaurs

Figure 5. These four small to tiny pterosaurs demonstrate tail reduction following taxa having a longer and more robust tail.

The Pattern of Tail Reduction in Pterosaurs
At some point the utility of an elongated tail diminished in pterosaurs, as it did in birds. Contra traditional stuides, tail reduction in pterosaurs appeared three times during overall size reduction in pterosaurs. Examples include the tiny Dorygnathus sisters TM 10341, St/Ei I and the tiny Scaphognathus sister, TM 13104 (Fig. 5). These reductions may be considered paedomorphic sequences in which the genes for tail lengthening and stiffening simply did not turn on as these three pterosaur clades retained embryonic traits (a flexible tail curled into a shell) earlier and earlier in their ontogenetic development.

The Pterodaustro Tail
The tail of derived pterosaurs has been rarely documented, but in Pterodaustro (Codorniu 2005) a comparatively elongated tail was present. Kellner and Tomida (2000) documented the tail of Anhanguera. Young (1964) documented the tail of Dsungaripterus. Zhenyuanopterus preserved a completely articulated tail. These were all substantial tails, yet still relative vestiges. Traditional views promote the disappearance of tails in pterodactyloid-grade pterosaurs. Not so, according to these derived examples.

The Pteranodon Tail
Bennett (1987 ) described an unusual tail attributed to Pteranodon that had duplex centra capable only of elevation and depression. This tail terminated in extended parallel rods, probably representing fused duplex centra. This tail was likely too small to affect aerodynamic abilities. If present on a female, such a tiny fragile tail might have been in danger of damage during mating. Perhaps it was capable of curling over the back to permit mating without damage, co-opting the tail-assisted pitch control of its nonvolant lizard ancestors.

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 1987.  New evidence on the tail of the pterosaur Pteranodon (Archosauria: Pterosauria). Pp. 18-23 in Currie, P. J. and E. H. Koster, eds. Fourth Symposium on Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems, Short Papers. Occasional Papers of the Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, #3
Bennett SC 1997.
The arboreal leaping theory of the origin of pterosaur flight. Historical Biology 123: 265–290.
Bennett SC 1991. Morphology of the Late Cretaceous Pterosaur Pteranodon and Systematics of the Pterodactyloidea. [Volumes I & II]. Ph.D. thesis, University of Kansas, University Microfilms International/ProQuest.
Bennett SC 2001. The osteology and functional morphology of the Late Cretaceous pterosaur Pteranodon. Part I. General description of osteology. Palaeontographica, Abteilung A, 260: 1–112. Part II. Functional morphology. Palaeontographica, Abteilung A, 260: 113–153.
Codorniú LS 2005. Morfología caudal de Pterodaustro guinazui (Pterosauria: Ctenochasmatidae) del Cretácico de Argentina. Ameghiniana: 42 (2): versión On-line ISSN 1851-8044.
Libby T, Moore TY, Chang-Siu E, Li D, Cohen DJ, Jusufi A, Full RJ 2012. Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots and dinosaurs. Nature. 2012 Jan 4;481(7380):181-4. doi: 10.1038/nature10710.
Ostrom JH 1969. Osteology of Deinonychus antirrhopus, an unusual theropod from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana. Bull. Peabody Mus. Nat. Hist. (Paris) 30, 68–80, 144. Young CC 1964. On a new pterosaurian from Sinkiang, China. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 8: 221-256.

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