Sky Monsters – National Geographic Video Review

All pterosaur videos are eagerly awaited and never fail to disappoint.

Sky Monsters DVD  carrying case featuring Pteranodon on the cover.

Figure 1. Sky Monsters DVD carrying case featuring Pteranodon on the cover. It doesn’t make an appearance inside, but a short-winged version of Nyctosaurus does. Click to go to National Geographic Store webpage.

And this one is no exception. I just became aware of this National Geographic video on pterosaurs called “Sky Monsters.” This DVD was available after Sept 27, 2012.

A little hyperbole, please!
Quotes from the narrator and others, “Their bodies were so bizarre, it’s hard to imagine how they got into the air.” My comments follow: That’s because they were inaccurately modeled and animated.

“The closest thing to living dragons the world has ever seen.” Dragons used to be based on partially exposed plesiosaur fossils, I think. They are known for their great size, wicked teeth, long necks and wing-like flippers, but if you focus on the flying aspect of pterosaurs, well, maybe. But all European pterosaurs were medium to tiny.

‘They’re not birds and they’re not bats, so what in God’s name are they?” Really, do we have to call on The Almighty when Cuvier settled this issue (pterosaurs are flying lizards) two centuries ago?

“Pterosaurs appear abruptly in the fossil record. We don’t have a clue how they evolved.” [buzzer sound] Wrong. No expert wants to admit that pterosaurs were really lizards derived from fenestrasaurs as all the evidence demonstrates. This is problem that continues to fester.

So, you can see, the producers spare no subtlety here in their approach.
Unfortunately, these are the worst 3D animated dinos and pterosaurs I have ever seen, not even counting the various morphological problems: 1) deep wing chords; 2) knees bent down, legs hanging back, not even employing the uropatagia,which are present;  3) free wing finger problems. Here you can see all the classic paradigm problems still employed. Fortunately we see no forward-pointing pteroids and no fore-limb leaping take-offs. Unfortunately the velociraptors have no feathers and no ulnar adduction, only those creepy Nosferatu hands. Also unfortunately, Henodus is identified as a prehistoric turtle.

Scene from Sky Monsters. This ornithocheirid has several "issues" including a deep chord wing membrane attached to the backward-extending hind limb.

Figure 2. Scene from Sky Monsters. This ornithocheirid has several “issues” including a deep chord wing membrane attached to the backward-extending hind limb. The knees are bent like human, not a lizard, which would have produced a sprawl that would have invoked the uropatagia and rotated the fee dorsal side laterally, like horizontal stabilizers. Imagine holding your own legs up  like this without aerial support. That’s what the thighs and uropatagia are for: lift!

Awkward?
Throughout the video we’re often reminded that pterosaurs were awkward on the ground. And of course they are when they are improperly reconstructed with those very wrong and completely imagined deep-chord wing membranes that refuse to fold away (as demonstrated in fossil specimens with narrow chord membranes, like Pterodactylus). Tsk. Tsk. Someone, somewhere should know better by now. I mean, all you have to do is look! WYSIWYG.

Cast of Experts
Wendy Sloboda points out a previously unknown (to me at least) example of a dinosaur tooth lodged in a mid-sized pterosaur shinbone (tibia) in western North America. I’d like to learn more about this.

Dino Frey makes the briefest of appearances.

Phillippe Tacquet replays the moment when Georges Cuvier realized pterosaurs were reptiles.

Kevin Padian and an uncredited Eric Buffetaut examine the Toulouse landing tracks by night.

Archival footage of Paul MacCready, inventor of the Gossamer Albatross, includes a young Kevin Padian as they successfully fly a model Quetzalcoatlus in the 1980s. The model is described as an airplane in pteroaur’s clothing, which sets up the modern model…

Margot Garritsen is a Dutch engineer and Stanford professor who leads a team intent on building a flying pterosaur based on Paul Sereno’s ornithocheirid from the Sahara. They are counting on greater success with lighter materials and a more accurate wing movement with not one, but five wing joints for flight control.

In the new model the shoulders rotate, and sweep forward and back; the wrists rotate and sweep forward and back; and the elbow bends. Funny they didn’t mention the wing finger, the most movable bone in the entire wing. Perhaps five was already too many (see below for successful ptero ornithopters) as there was no successful flight during the filming of this video. If you like crashes, you’ll see two.

David Unwin describes an azhdarchid as a scavenger of dead dinosaurs. He also weighs in on the issue of  ptero babies: born live? or hatched from eggs? (Answer: eggs, as we all have known since 2003.) Then David takes this to the next level asking, “Were they able to fly right after hatching?” Dr. Unwin confirms “yes” because in Solnhofen limestones they find tiny pterosaurs in rocks that were laid down miles out to sea. He demonstrates an ontogenetic sequence (growth series) with three fossils, purportedly and very doubtfully from the same species at three different ages, small, medium and large. Unwin notes that the wing bone proportions don’t change at all from one to another, but the length of the beak does change.

Unfortunately, Dr. Unwin is promoting a false paradigm that refuses to go away.
We looked at this false reasoning earlier and cross-tested it with phylogenetic analysis. Unwin doesn’t use data from actual embryos, the only pterosaurs for which it is possible to find an exact age: zero. Unwin did not discover a phylogenetic series because baby pterosaurs were isometric (virtual exact copies only smaller) of their parents. They did not change beak length, as demonstrated by every one of the embryo pterosaurs, especially the Pterodaustro embryo. Furthermore, tiny Solnhofen pterosaurs with beaks of many lengths are known, but this data evidently continues to evade general acceptance.

Someday someone somewhere
will produce a pterosaur video in which the pterosaurs have the grace and beauty of birds, the aerial agility of bats and the incredible speed and terrestrial locomotion capabilities of bipedal lizards. Until then, pterosaurs remain firmly in control of the experts and producers, who want them slow and ungainly on the ground and slow and ugly/scary in the air.

Here’s another review of the NG pterosaur DVD.

Successful Ptero-Ornithopters
Other than the MacReady Quetzalcoatlus, some good videos of pterosaur-shaped ornithopters (flapping flying machines) can be found here, here and here. They are not anatomically accurate. Nevertheless, they all depend on a horizontal stabilizer, generally pitched up, which keeps the nose up, something lacking in the Gerrittsen model.

There’s also a David Attenborough pterosaur video, which we’ll take a look at sometime in the future.

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