Mark Witton’s “Pterosaurs” – a book review part 1

Dr. Mark Witton is fantastic artist and devotee of pterosaurs. He has a new book called Pterosaurs (with an preview). I’ve ordered the book and will make an in depth report after it arrives. The following is based on the online preview of chapter 1. Witton’s writing style is entertaining and engaging. The book should have popular appeal on that level.

The cover portrays a magnificent crested Nyctosaurus at sunrise or sunset. Gorgeous!

Then things tumble.

Witton’s Table of Contents shows an embryo Pterodaustro with a very short rostrum, unlike any Pterodaustro I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen the embryo. The rostrum extends nearly the entire length of the egg. An agreement with Laura Codorniú prohibits me from publishing the image until she does, but the reconstruction of the long-beaked embryo Pterodaustro is based on that tracing. As we learned earlier, pterosaurs grew isometrically, resembling their parents on hatching.

Witton’s Rhamphorhynchus image on page 2 portrays the infamous cruro/uropatagium, a membrane spanning the hind limbs and not including the tail. The image also includes the infamous deep chord wing membrane, for which there is no evidence whatsoever as the Sordes situation was falsified. Witton’s two Rhamphs also have much shorter wings than any Rhamphorhynchus I’ve ever seen. One of Witton’s wonders has brought its wrists (carpals) in close to the base of the neck, which is novel, at least, but kills the tension on the extensor tendon that keeps the wing membrane aerodynamic. As in birds, when the elbow flexes, the wing folds. Having the wings fold in flight isn’t bad. Birds do it all the time for a brief low drag rest. At least the feet are properly positioned in Wittons’ illustration.

Page 3 portrays several dozen pterosaurs doing the forelimb leap that is such a travesty and fantasy that I slap my head every time I see it again and again. It has become firmly entrenched. Gadzooks@!# what is the ptero-world coming to?

Page 4 has a fine picture of Pterodactylus antiquus, the first pterosaur known to science, with a big round head crest. Not quite ready to buy into that one quite yet. Some Pterodactylus did have a crest, but not that one.

Page 12 portrays a hypothetic pterosaur ancestor. It looks like Peteinosaurus with a short digit 4 leaping from a branch (using muscular hind limbs). The caption reads, “The fossil record has yet to reveal an “intermediate” between fully formed pterosaurs and possible ancestors, meaning we can only speculate on their anatomy and appearance.” And once again, pterosaur professors are casting a blind eye toward the hard evidence presented in the large reptile tree where dozens of ancestors are lined up. As you’ll recall, ludicrous as it sounds, we can even put turtles up as the closest known sisters to pterosaurs if we delete all the other sisters and candidates from the new Lepidosauromorpha, as demonstrated here. This just proves that pterosaur workers are actively avoiding the issue and the answer. But, I have to say, it’s a beautiful and evocative image that Witton has created, wrong though it may be.

Page 16 portrays three purported pterosaur ancestor/sisters, Sharovipteryx, Euparkeria and Scleromochlus. Witton calls Sharovipteryx an archosauromorph protorosaur, when it is neither. It is a fenestrasaur tritosaur lepidosaur, as we learned earlier. Euparkeria is closest to erythrosuchids, about as far from pterosaurs as one could imagine. Scleromochlus, shown hopping in Witton’s illustration with a dino quadrate leaning the wrong way, is a basal crocodylomorph. Witton strongly leans toward the “pterosaurs are ornithodires” direction despite the tiny hands and lack of pedal digit 5 in Scleromochlus.

Witton takes aim at my placing pterosaurs within the Squamata as the most unlikely hypothesis currently under consideration. See a recent post on this here. Witton writes, “There seems little similarity between the skulls of pterosaurs and the highly modified, mobile skulls of squamates or any similarity between the trunk and limb skeletons of each group.” Well, frequent readers will know that pterosaurs are tritosaur lepidosaurs, an outgroup clade to the two that make up the Squamata, the Iguania and the Scleroglossa. Pterosaurs are neither of these. Tritosaurs do not have the mobile skulls found in some squamates. They also don’t have the fused tarsals of squamates. They are distinct. Witton has whitewashed the tritosaur fenestrasaur hypothesis with this “red herring,” while virtually ignoring the fenestrasaurs, following in the less than noble footsteps of our colleague Dr. David Hone, whose exploits you can read about here. In chapter one, at least, Witton avoids any discussion of the pteroid and prepubis in Cosesaurus and other fenestrasaurs. Why should he ignore these key and readily observable traits? Dr. Pierre Ellenberger saw them first without recognizing their significance.

Page 17 Witton then discusses the possible protorosaur origins of pterosaurs, pointing to the shared trait of an elongated neck and forgetting the not-so-elongated neck of the basalmost  pterosaur, MPUM6009.  Witton points up the “fact” that protorosaurs lack an antorbital fenestra, but recent finds show that two protorosaurs had such a fenestra by virtue of convergence (really a side issue of little consequence). Witton finishes with protorosaurs by noting the body shapes are not at all pterosaurian, which is true.

Witton invites a closer look at Sharovipteryx and notices similarities to pterosaurs in the hind limbs and their membranes, but notes, “It’s hard to find other features that reliably link this animals with pterosaurs.” He may not have looked at the actual specimen as I have. Evidently he did not notice the ilium was anteriorly elongated, prepubes were present, more than five sacrals were present, the tail was attenuated with parallel chevrons, the bones were hollow, the feet have the same morphology as pterosaurs with a short metatarsal 5 and an elongated and robust p5.1 as obvious and compelling similarities. Once again, the blind eye rules. Witton reports that the Sharovipteryx skull lacks an antorbital fenestra and the foot is unlike that of any pterosaur. Where does he get his information? Certainly not from any sort of direct observation or adherence to the literature. Of course he doesn’t back up any of this with evidence. Witton concludes by noting that gliding with hind limbs is unique, failing to find parallels in Microraptor and the uropatagia of fenestrasaurs including pterosaurs. Sharovipteryx had fore limbs. Witton just doesn’t know or doesn’t show what they look like. But you can see them here.

Page 18 Witton prefers the archosauriform ancestry hypothesis due to the shared features of an antorbital fenestra and reduced bone counts in the fifth pedal digit, perforated lower jaws, and “many other anatomical similarities.” Really? Witton equates an evaporating pedal digit 5 in archosauriforms with the robust element in pterosaurs (and, of course he doesn’t count the ungual on the pterosaur digit). A robust pedal digit 5 is also found in Huehuecuetzpalli and all the tritosaur lepidosaurs that followed (except Macrocnemus and the drepanosaurs). Why doesn’t Witton consider these and put some study into them? The antorbital fenstra of archosauriforms is always (except for proterosuchians) surrounded by a fossa, a trait lacking in any pterosaurs.

Witton also prefers archosaurs as pterosaur sisters, and, in particular, Scleromochlus, despite the tiny hands that were, ironically, used to rule out Sharovipteryx. Evidently Witton prefers to have it both ways, so long as he stays within tradition. Witton lists fusion of the two proximal ankle bones to the shin (which does not occur in pterosaurs), reduction of the fibula (also in tritosaurs), the structure of the foot (actually more like that of tritosaur lizards like Cosesaurus, which retain an elongated pedal digit 5, which archosaurs lack), “several limb and hip proportions” (can Witton get even more vague here?) and the lack of bony scales along the back (then why is he ignoring those on Scleromochlus and Scutellosaurus).

Witton notes the shield-like pelves were different than in dinosaurs, but defends that by saying, “This may not be surprising, however, given, that pterosaur hindlinmbs were, uniquely among ornithodirans, used to support the wing in flight.” Utter rubbish!!! on the face of it and not pertinent to any phylogenetic discussion. You take the traits as they are and you let the computer decide where the taxa belong most parsimoniously. The “why” question or reason is never in play. By the way, similar pelves to pterosaurs can be found in fenestrasaurs, but these are ignored by Witton.

Witton writes, “arguments that basal pterosaurs were bipedal and digitigrade may be flawed” because basal ornithodires (aka: Asilisauruswhich bears no resemblance whatsoever to pterosaurs) were quadrupeds. This is far-reaching and totally bogus. I would be ashamed and would expect heavy chastisement having made such a comparison, especially after promoting bipedal Scleromochlus as a potential ancestor. But then Witton tops that bungle of reasoning by saying that Scleromochlus is “suspected of hopping about on plantigrade feet.” More fantasy! Few creatures, other than deer and horses, have feet more obviously digitigrade than Scleromochlus. Witton also ignores the known bipedal pterosaur footprints  (more here, here and more info here).

Page 21 Witton prefers an imagined hypothetical ancestor to a real one, and it glides from trees. Of course, this does nothing to explain the origin of flapping (because no gliders flap, unless they started off as flappers). Witton ascribes the mobility and length of the fifth toe to its use as a stabilizing tool, ignoring the fact that most tritosaurs from Tanystropheus to Sharovipteryx, have such a fifth toe, thus it cannot be developed for flight. Witton reports that the fifth toe, which is lateral, elongates to frame the medial membrane, which should strike you as odd and implausible. In reality the fifth toe is not connected to a membrane, except in Sharovipteryx, and each membrane trails each hind limb. They don’t cross to connect with each other.

Page 22 Witton reports that the hind limbs rotate out sideways to create efficient airfoils, but even that is fraught with error. One: Archosaurs can’t do this with their erect femurs. Two: Basal pterosaurs can’t do this either with their erect femurs. Raising the hind limbs to the horizon happens in later, more derived pterosaurs with a more sprawling femur.

Witton reports that during the evolution of pterosaurs that the fourth finger became so enlarged and unwieldy that it needed to be stowed away when grounded. We can all stow away our fingers by pressing them against our palms, but Witton ignores this. He also ignores the axial rotation of metacarpal 4 so that digit flexion puts digit 4 along the posterior rim of the hand, not the palmar side any longer. Witton reports ungual 4 was missing, since it was no longer necessary. We’ve seen so many several cases of ungual 4 present on pterosaurs that it needs to be considered universal.

Witton adds fibers to wing membranes as they need to be more sophisticated in their unsupported regions, ignoring that Cosesaurus had trailing fibers before it had wing membranes (Ellenberger 1993, Peters 2009).

With regard to flapping, our expert Dr. Witton reports, “At some point, manipulation of these wings in the vertical plane produced flapping, and self-propelled flight was achieved.” Gee, he makes it sound almost as if it was that easy. At and the PterosaurHeresies blog you learned the exact steps the exact taxa took to achieve flapping prior to the development of wings in pterosaurs, paralleling that same development in birds. So if Witton’s book leaves you unsatisfied and yearning for real answers, come see these websites and blogs.

Witton ascribes the development of flight muscles and bones to the ability of quadrupedal pterosaur ancestors to chiefly employ the forelimbs during leaps. He sort of leaves the larger hips and thighs out of the equation, evidently incapable of creating all the power necessary for a leap and leaving the unused arms in this bipedal model to do something else, like flap as a secondary sexual trait.

Dr. Witton does take the brave leap of including my published works in his reference list, something Dr. Unwin did not do in his less recent pterosaur book.

Let’s face it
If Dr. Witton does not even know what pterosaurs are (which he has acknowledged in his book), he has no business acting as an expert on pterosaurs and writing books about them. Unfortunately this is an acceptable trend continued by Dr. Unwin from Dr. Peter Wellnhofer. In chapter one Witton has already published too many errors. It’s too late in the game to fold ones’ hands and politely tell your readers, “Good question… we really don’t know. It’s one of the mysteries of paleontology.” There’s something called phylogenetic analysis that is guaranteed to give you an answer when you’re looking for an ancestor. However, you’ll have to include at least a few of the right taxa (among the tritosaurs in this case), to get close to the right answer. If you’re looking for the ancestors of pterosaurs, they’re right here in one place.

We’ll look at other Witton chapters in the future. But this one on pterosaur origins really irks me. It’s rather embarrassing that this sort of crap (a complete avoidance of certain data) is still being circulated. But I _do_ love the artwork.

Ellenberger P 1993. Cosesaurus aviceps . Vertébré aviforme du Trias Moyen de Catalogne. Étude descriptive et comparative. Mémoire Avec le concours de l’École Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Laboratorie de Paléontologie des Vertébrés. Univ. Sci. Tech. Languedoc, Montpellier (France). Pp. 1-664.
Peters D 2009. A reinterpretation of pteroid articulation in pterosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29: 1327-1330.
Witton M. 2013. Pterosaurs. Princeton University Press. 291 pages.

38 thoughts on “Mark Witton’s “Pterosaurs” – a book review part 1

  1. There has never been anything wrong with saying “I don’t know” in science, and furthernore, there are never any guaranteed outcomes in an experiment. Science is not absolute truth, it is a method to describe and account prior observations.

      • So is saying “I know” prematurely. I can say “I know heavier things fall faster than lighter things” if I don’t do enough experiments and limit myself to one specific method of testing falling objects (e.g. only using a feather and a rock for my test sample), but that would be premature. Eventually experiments that employ other methods (e.g. using a larger lead weight and a smaller lead weight) will demonstrate otherwise.

        Also, just because something can be known doesn’t mean it is. I can know a theory that accounts for both relativity and quantum mechanics, but I don’t. The experiments and mathematics involved are still being worked out. That does not mean I will not know it, but as of now the work is preliminary and saying anything stronger than that I have the potential to know it is dishonest.

        Furthermore, going back to the first example, it is wrong to say “I know that heavier things fall faster than lighter things because my method of using feathers and rocks for testing gives these results, and those who use larger and smaller lead weights are wrong to do so” because it rejects the results of a method that is equally valid, if not moreso, without satisfactorily providing a reason for why the former should be preferred over the latter.

  2. You know, when I first started reading this blog, I found it difficult to understand why people gave you such a hard time. I thought your ideas were, for the most part, wrong, but that should have promoted discussion, not the criticism you got. I think its a good idea to put some bizarre ideas out there, if for no other reason than to make people think. and, despite its flaws, I really like the idea of the large reptile tree.

    I am now starting to see why people give you a hard time. This post, (and the one where you accused there being a syndicate of palaeontologists) are making me understand. Sorry to be blunt, but you come across as arrogant, self important, and ignorant of how science works.

    I’m sorry, experts are not allowed to say “I don’t know”?????? Really??? Am I to take it you’ve never said that? that you know all there is about pterosaurs? The whole point of science IS to say we don’t know. and then try to find the answer.

    And, I’m really sorry to keep being blunt, but your attitude towards phylogenetic analysis is precisely the reason why no one takes your ideas seriously. You seem to think that one can just pull together a bunch of characters, jam all the taxa they want in, and the answer that comes out is right. No. That is the attitude I had when I was an undergrad, learning to make a phylogeny and doing a piece of coursework on forams. I did the same. made up a character list, jammed the taxa in, and came up with an answer. and of course I thought it was right.

    Having actually done a bit of research into phylogenetic method, I see how flawed my analysis was. If you bothered to do some research into character selection, character redundancy, into multistate characters, continuous characters, into the alternative methods like likelihood and Bayesian methods, stratocladistcs, ratchets, sectorial searches and so on, into issues of support, probability and stratigraphic consistency, you would see just how complicated phylogenetic analysis is, and how ridiculous your attitude is. and you would see the flaws in yours.

    Its obvious for anyone who has bothered to look into these issues how bad your analysis is. I don’t even need to look at the character scorings. The list itself is enough. it is full of redundant characters, incorrectly multistate characters, characters which are discrete but should be continuous, characters trying to analyse two aspects of morphology at once. and, as everyone keeps trying to point out, it takes into account the most minute portion of the variation in reptiles. Moreover, (and correct me if I’m wrong) but I suspect you have only tried a single method, parsimony, to analyse it. Even your taxon list, which you take such pride in waving in front of everyone, is flawed, as I tried to point out before. I told you to include Ianthasaurus, to which you responded that the position of Edaphosaurids is not controversial, thus proving that you did not understand the issues of character polarity which I was trying to get across

    I hope you will see why I called you arragont and self important before. you say that other scientists, people who have put in time and effort into understanding all these issues, do not deserve to be called experts, and if you are going to say there ideas have been falsified (by which you mean “they have been falsified by me”), yet you have not put in any effort into learning about phylogenetics. the very tool you use! It is not a simple tool. it is not an uncontroversial tool. “Guaranteed to give you an answer”, my foot.

  3. Neil, when I see the day when Huehuecuetzpalli and the real Cosesaurus areentered into phylogenetic analysis that includes pterosaurs my work will be done. Everyone has avoided doing that. It’s not arrogance, it’s insistence. The answers ARE out there. They have been purposefully ignored by the experts. My phylogeny results in sisters that resemble one another in detail and overall. Other phylogenies don’t. That should be more than apparent to you. Please send any information on Ianthasaurus. I’ll have some time this weekend.

    • No, it is not arrogance to want to see more inclusive phylogenies, I never said it was. It is arrogance to assume that your phylogeny is right when you ignore the dozen or so problems with your analysis. It is arrogance to assume that an alternative hypothesis has been falsified just because you say something different (particularly when you’ve used a flawed analysis). And it is arrogance to attack someone’s status as an expert just because you think you have the answer and he thinks more work is needed. I’m not saying his (and others) work is perfect, there is flawed work from proffesionals too, and it is right and proper to point them out. But remeber, your hypothesis is just another hypothesis. When you provide a new set of relationships, all you have done is provide an alternative hypothesis, not necessairly the right one

      As I mentioned before, that sister taxa look alike is irrelevant, particularly when you fail to include the basalmost members in each clade (it is they which should look alike, not the derived members). On that note, I sent you the Ianthasaurus papers, but keep in mind this taxon is just the tip of the iceburg. You need to investigate the basalmost member of EVERY clade. Otherwise your character polarities are likely to be wrong, and convergent characters will be taken as homologous. yes, a lot of them are incomplete, and probably wouldn’t be resolved in your matrix. But you know full well what the solution to that is.

      • I thought I had entered basal members for virtually all clades. And I may have done so already. Please advise on absentees and other necessary taxa. I’ll remind you that at 330+ for reptiles and another 200 for pterosaurs, this is by far the largest venture into reptile phylogeny so far, warts and all. So there aren’t many untested places left over for most major clades, unlike other smaller published studies that leave vast numbers of possibilities open a priori. The fact that sister taxa look alike is germane. That’s how evolution works, in baby steps.

  4. “Witton concludes by noting that gliding with hind limbs is unique, failing to find parallels in Microraptor”
    I don’t think any paleontologist accepts a biplane-style reconstruction of Microraptor. In fact a couple of presentations at the Raleigh SVP meeting helped to clarify what they were doing (because, as you point out, they couldn’t flex sideways) with those vertical femora. As for:

    “the lack of bony scales along the back (then why is he ignoring those on Scleromochlus and Scutellosaurus).”
    I’d hazard a guess to say that at least in Scutellosaurus’ case it is because it is irrelevant. It would be like talking about blowhole position on whales when looking at bipedalism in apes. The armor of thyreophorans appears to be independently derived as earlier members of the ornithischian clade lack dermal integument (though I don’t rule out an ancestral gene being reactivated).

  5. Seems that others have beat me to it. David — I like you, but I am simply >staggeredaren’t right< – there are good reasons for thinking that you're VIRTUALLY ALWAYS WRONG. I continue to think that you are a genuine menace as goes the promotion of palaeontology and research on fossil reptiles.

  6. Apologies – my use of symbols confused wordpress and the previous comment got scrambled…

    Seems that others have beat me to it. David — I like you, but I am simply staggered by your arrogance. This article is a travesty. If you need a bit more detail on my perspective: look, presenting ‘alternative’ viewpoints all the time is ok so long as you can admit that your interpretations might be off, or subject to revision as new data comes in or new work is done. You act if you’re the only one who’s right ALL THE TIME, and here you’re positively mocking ideas that are pretty robust (e.g., quad launching) when compared with your own poorly supported and flawed hypotheses. And you AREN’T RIGHT – there are good reasons for thinking that you’re VIRTUALLY ALWAYS WRONG. I continue to think that you are a genuine menace as goes the promotion of palaeontology and research on fossil reptiles.

  7. Darren, pterosaurs may be your Achilles heel. Evidence trumps wishful thinking. If you can’t see that Witton performed an “end around” when he compared pterosaurs to iquanids and varanids rather than the tritosaurs i promoted, and when he ignores all the good data on Cosesaurus, then this is where your blinders are on. I’m going to continue to stand up for what is right. Darren, you do many great things, but in this case, you’re part of the problem.

    • I agree with your fenestrasaur hypothesis, as I too have found symponomorphies between these two groups, but a lot of your other hypothesis are wrong. And saying that in science, you can’t say “I don’t know” is just plain wrong.

  8. “So there aren’t many untested places left over for most major clades, unlike other smaller published studies that leave vast numbers of possibilities open a priori.”

    That’s not what a priori means.

    A priori does not mean pre-judged or pre-conceived, it means something known self-evidently, mathematical truths and word definitions are examples of things known a priori (e.g. “2+2=4”, or “all bachelors are unmarried”). We know these statements are true pre-philosophically and pre-scientifically, without a need to test them. Of course, we can test them, but the results will never be different from what we already found out either by performing a mathematical operation, or by looking up a definition.

    While a priori knowledge is in a way more limited than a posteriori knowledge (that which must be acquired through observation) it is no less important; it provides the ground and the tools for building up a posteriori statements and arguments.

    • from Wiki: “A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience. ” All pterosaurs are ornithodires is a priori knowledge applied to phylogenetic analysis. No one would think to challenge that. Mesosaurs are anapsids is similar a priori knowledge. You walk in knowing those things. As it happens, those notions are wrong. I’m challenging such a priori knowledge by promoting testing.

      • The Wiki definition is correct, but what you’re not getting is that a priori knowledge also entails being true a priori, independent of experience (which is a lot to ask for, and why a priori knowledge is so limited).

        It does not matter whether one thinks to challenge a priori knowledge or not. Just because a priori knowledge exists independent of experience does not mean it is a pre-conception or a pre-judgement, those things can be false and represent a lapse in knowledge, and thus do not actually count as knowledge. A priori knowledge is something very different. Take a look again at the examples I gave, “2+2=4” or “all bachelors are unmarried”. These are not pre-conceptions, they are true, and they can be determined to be true without experience (i.e., observation or testing), that is the nature of a priori knowledge—it cannot be made untrue, 2+2 will not equal 5, and there will never be a married bachelor, and any attempt to formulate an exception to a priori knowledge, as just shown, leads to a contradiction.

        The phylogenetic position of a taxon is always known a posteriori, determined through experimentation, now, one may challenge the reliability of that experimentation, but even a tentative educated guess is a posteriori, never a priori, because that guess must still be based on experience of the organism in question. A posteriori knowledge always carries with it the potential for doubt. Whereas it is illogical to contradict a priori knowledge, because it is true independent of experience, a posteriori knowledge has the potential to be disproven since there is nothing inherently true about it and the experience that lead to that a posteriori knowledge always has the potential to be flawed.

    • Thank you, Mike, for your thoughts. In phylogenetic analyses, a priori exclusion or inclusion is all we’re looking at here. I think exclusion or inclusion of smaller more focused studies should be done following the results a larger gamut study that confirms broad relationships. Currently workers are selecting taxa based on tradition and experience, not the results of a larger gamut study. It’s a flaw in reptile paleontology that needs to be fixed.

      • Any inclusion or exclusion of an entity in a category or set that does not include that entity by definition is a posteriori judgement.

        An a priori judgement in a palaeontological situation would be a statement like “the genus Raeticodactylus includes the species filisurensis”. Raeticodactylus by definition includes filisurensis, will always include filisurensis, and cannot exclude filisurensis because filisurensis is the type species. We can go out and look for the type specimen of R. filisurensis, see that it is assigned to the genus Raeticodactylus and the species filisurensis according to its label, but that adds nothing more to our knowledge than we had before. It is known to be true without experience, testing, or experimentation, because we are working with a term and its definition, and terms and definitions are a priori knowledge.

        If I say “Raeticodactylus belongs to the clade Pterosauria”, then I am making an a posteriori judgement that either required or requires experience, i.e. testing. It demands I research pterosaurs, the R. filisurensis holotype, and by some method determine whether or not they pertain to each other. There is always a possibility that Raeticodactylus may not belong to Pterosauria since so far no published definition for Pterosauria specifically uses Raeticodactylus to define the clade, and so experience (testing, experimentation) is needed to guarantee its inclusion.

  9. “I’m part of the problem”? Really? You mean: by being sceptical about claims that are clearly not based on good or satisfactory data? I don’t want to say too much about it, but I actually have gone to some lengths to test/verify/falsify the various claims you’ve made (in particular, those about the position of Pterosauria within reptiles, and those concerning bits of morphology that only your unique technique is able to find), and it remains dishonest and arrogant of you to think that those of us who disagree with you simply do so because we regard you as some sort of black sheep. No, I say again, it’s because the evidence you present, and the logic and inference you use, are absolutely unsatisfactory. Please remember how confident you were about finding innumerable babies all over the place, gigantic soft-tissue dorsal sails and god knows what else…

    On pterosaurs and ornithodirans… quit saying that this is assumed knowledge. It’s been pointed out on numerous occasions by now, but I’ll do it again: Ornithodira is a node-based clade, defined to include dinosaurs and pterosaurs and all descendants of their MRCA. The name Ornithodira remains in use whether pterosaurs are close kin of Dinosauria, deeply nested with Squamata, or lie elsewhere within the tree of life. And stop saying stuff like “these notions are wrong”. They might be, but they might not be. Caveats caveats caveats. You do not know the true tree of life any more than the rest of us, and your hypotheses are likely ‘more wrong’ than the alternatives you dislike so much.

    One more thing: say that somebody did publish a big analysis of diapsids that included a representative sampling of squamates, your ‘fenestrasaurus’, assorted pterosaurs, and a reasonable count of other reptiles, and say that they utterly demolished (and failed to support) your hypotheses – – what then? Would you continue to insist that only you are correct (as you’ve done so far), or would you give up? This is a not a trick question, I really want to know your answer.

  10. Your comments indicate you’re dreaming, Darren. Wishing I would go away. Wishing I would surrender. Since no one else had created a large reptile tree, then your hope that somehow, somewhere, someone will find pterosaurs nesting with dinosaurs and not with an extinct clade of fenestrasaurs remains just that, a hopeful fantasy. The tree is still the one to beat. I know it’s irksome, but there it is.

    To your point, however, if someone does point out an error, and they do, and I have found several hundred over time, that new data moves to the matrix and gets fixed. Now, it’s important for you to realize the following. Some errors, in fact the vast majority in this case, when they get fixed, actually support the present topology. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the topology, which is what you’re hoping for. And if someone does find pterosaurs separated from Cosesaurus, Longisquama and kin, as Senter 2003 did, then we find out why and figure out who made the errors. In that case, Senter did, as I posted earlier.

    I will remind you that Ellenberger 1993 found all sorts of pterosaurian traits on Cosesaurus, long before I came along, from the pteroid to the prepubis and lots of interesting soft tissue. He misinterpreted them as bird traits. I encourage you to see my several posts on Ellenberger’s keen but flawed observations before your disapproval of my interpretations continues.

    You have my abstract from Rio Ptero 2013. It has also been published on this blog several days ago. Those are the true ancestors of pterosaurs. Delete any one or two of them and the rest will still nest pterosaurs as sisters. Send me your comments if you disagree.

    I also encourage you to forgive and forget errors that I made in the past that do not appear in You seem to want to hold on to those as if that is the slender thread supporting your logic. I have rejected those mistakes and you should see the fresh data in the website with new eyes. Currently you give the impression that you don’t let colleagues forget and move on beyond their mistakes. That’s not the Darren I met once. I’m sure you’re not jealous that I have uncovered and discovered several Holy Grails in paleontology, but you act like it by blackwashing the entirety of my research, rejecting reason and not employing specific data disputes in your arguments.

    If you find specific errors, please bring them to my attention. I have an open door. Blackwashing the entire site and all my work is not good Science. In the end you’ll be seen as the villain in this drama as it plays out over time. Be specific when you find an error and you will find a good listener here. I’m all about evidence. I have to be. I have many critics. I also encourage you to contact me personally via e-mail where we can share images, ideas and data. I’m confident I can persuade you to see the light. Hang in there. It’s going to be tough. You’re going to go through a paradigm shift. And I promise not to bring up the mistakes of your past after that happens.

  11. Well, you consistently misinterpret my scepticism as if I’m acting like an enemy or hater, or one who wishes that you and your ideas would go away. For the record, I should state that I’m personally not ‘against’ the idea that pterosaurs might be close relatives of Cosesaurus and so on, and I remain interested in the possibility that pterosaurs might not be close kin of dinosaurs (the nesting of pterosaurs within Squamata, however, is thoroughly unconvincing and I wish you would see why acceptance of this idea is not gonna happen: NOT because of personal feelings, an adherence to tradition, or an allegiance to friends and co-authors [oh, puh-leez], but because the evidence you’ve put forwards is just terrible).

    The main problems I have with your stuff is that you think you’re the only one who sees ‘the truth’ when dealing with ambiguous, unsatisfactory features (e.g., those alleged ‘prepubes’ of Cosesaurus that you keep bringing up), and that you think your phylogenetic proposals are better than those of others, despite numerous indications to the contrary. Your mistakes of the past absolutely are relevant, since you were as confident about their reality as you are about the things that you currently endorse, yet now you agree with the rest of us that they were nonsense. There is a reason that some (or many) of your things fail to make it past peer-review. It’s because your interpretations are flawed and unlikely to be correct. This is all sounding very familiar…

    We seem to have moved quite some distance in the comment thread here; I’m sure I’ve said all of this sort of stuff before. I want to return to a point made earlier on. Grotesque arrogance and an insistence that other workers are idiots for not accepting your ideas is only going to make you more of a pariah. Your interpretations and hypotheses are alternatives and possibilities, and should be couched as such. I just wish you would appreciate this, since in continually stating that you’ve found ‘the truth’ and that others will surely turn around in time (as per your comment just above this one), you are presenting a dishonest and misleading view of where we’re at with respect to what we know. ‘Holy Grails’? No, _alternative_ proposals unlikely to be correct.

    • Peters’s theories are inaccurate, but YOURS can be too(and you don’t seem to know the meaning of “personal attack.) If anyone wants TRUTH, come to me.

  12. Dave, you go too far for me here. It’s becoming harder and harder to remain impersonal in our disagreements about pterosaurs. Mark Witton isn’t an expert on pterosaurs and has “no business […] writing books about them”? Really? Unwin and Wellnhofer are our too, eh? Who would qualify as an “expert” in your opinion? (Just you?)

    All this is quite absurd – whatever your disagreements are, you do yourself no favours with this ridiculous attitude.

    • John, thanks for your note. To your points, when something is known, like the origin of pterosaurs within the fenestrasaurs, and this is ignored for more than a decade, despite mounting evidence of support, and absolutely no support for the traditional hypothesis, then the blinders are on and that is intolerable. Same holds true for the deep chord wing and the uropatagium. It’s more than a disagreement here. It’s a disregard for observable and testable facts. Someone has to say something. This can’t go on. That’s why I’m here — not to win any popularity contests. I would love for someone to prove me wrong with evidence, but that would mean someone would have to actually see the fenestrasaur specimens and repeat the experiment, and so far, no one has done that in detail. To prove Witton’s favored hypothesis, workers could also find an archosaur with long lateral digits, multi-cusped teeth and an ossified sternum, but that hasn’t happened yet. And it’s not going to happen because those traits are not found as a suite in archosaurs. Thus, much of what Witton wrote and illustrated in chapter one is false and misleading, and therefore this chapter does the subject a disservice.

      To your second point: I’ve been an outcast from your clade for a long time now. I’m not trying to do myself any favors. But I am standing up for the facts in this matter.

      • “despite mounting evidence of support”
        Your own support. Who else finds this same support besides you? Science has to be repeatable, right? We all agree on that. Others HAVE tested your hypotheses (or subsets thereof). Mickey Mortimer was unable to reproduce your results, for one example. I was unable to find support for your fusion character. I believe others, like Naish, have run your analyses and aren’t able to reproduce your results.

        “absolutely no support for the traditional hypothesis”
        The traditional hypothesis is imperfect (as I think everyone would agree to) but it enjoys OVERWHELMING support from the gathered, tested evidence. We could do the same statistical tests on character distribution that I ran on your tree with the traditional phylogenies and find statistically significant correlations between characters and relationships. In fact that is what the other workers do – all of the support analyses seek to determine whether or not the tree represents reality (or at least as close as we can get). The number of MPT is not as important as how well supported the consensus tree(s) are. I know others have touched upon this in the past so I don’t want to rehash it too much – but I also feel like it needed to be said again. Not all hypotheses are equally valid. If your tree has stronger support values than the traditional phylogeny then that might be one thing but (if I recall) you haven’t said what the support values are. Others who have tested your matrix have found low support. Logic dictates we accept the best (i.e. most well-supported) available hypothesis, regardless of how you “feel” the closely-related taxa should look.

      • Dave, do your really think it’s likely that you’re right, but in all these years you have failed to gain SINGLE ally in support? Your notion that there is a conspiracy of people against you is silly, pterosaur research is fractured and adversarial, everyone’s at everyone else’s throats.

        I check your tracings against my own, and my examination of specimens, and I just don’t see what you do a lot of the time. Does that make me a liar? Stuck in the ‘paradigm’? (What paradigm do I have with regards to wing membranes for example?) I know you’ll probably just chuck more “well if they’d just check x or y they’d see I was right” at me, but this doesn’t get around my own observation that your tracings are often very questionable.

        Since you act with certainty about stuff I can see with my own damn eyes is tremendously uncertain (or indeed even likely to be wrong), it seems all too likely to me that you’re suffering from a kind of megalomania in the huge number of pronouncements you make on diverse areas of pterosaur evolution, biomechanics, and ecology.

  13. Interesting assumption, Rob. They’re right. I’m wrong. That logic may be flawed. As you’ll recall, Mortimer’s tree nested theropods as derived from beaked dinosaurs, so that data had numerous flaws to produce an upside down tree. Naish has not tested my tree to my knowledge. Where is the low support on my tree? Answer: Wherever a skull only taxa nests to a skull-less taxon. Otherwise the tree is well-supported, and all subsets thereof. Deleting those very incomplete taxa brings the support levels up at those remaining nodes. So, numbers are one thing, why the numbers are what they are is another thing. You can’t stop after you get the numbers. You have to examine your results and figure out why numbers are high or low. One thing you might try with the data, is to delete the sisters of novel nestings, (like pterosaurs or mesosaurs or caseids). First delete one sister, then another and another to see when the taxon in question jumps to another node. In my experiments doing that several to several dozen taxa have to be removed and still the nesting topologies remain the same, as in the earlier turtle/pterosaur experiment. Every taxon affects the nesting of every other taxon, as you know, so when you have 335+ taxa affecting the nesting of each of these taxa, it’s very hard to change topologies.

    • “Interesting assumption, Rob. They’re right. I’m wrong. That logic may be flawed.”
      What’s wrong with being wrong? My first published paper was on new specimens of Dilophosaurus in the MNA collections. Pretty much every specimen assigned in paper can’t be supported. There’s one tooth and a partial hindlimb that I feel are likely Dilophosaurus…maybe. Everything else in that I am probably wrong on.
      So, what’s my point? You say that you fix errors when they are pointed out. You certainly have in the past at some points, but other times (when the corrections have been crucial to your thesis) you have resisted well reasoned and logical critiques – critiques that may change your results. The point of my story above is that if those specimens aren’t Dilophosaurus then my entire conclusion in the Carnivorous Dinosaurs volume about a lack of sexual dimorphism has to be thrown out. Completely. Something I worked for many years on and was very proud of (and even defended at the 2001 SVP meeting). When I was first presented with evidence that I might be wrong I didn’t assume that the other scientist(s) were working against me or were incompetent. I looked at their critiques and weighed them against my own arguments. I looked back at the evidence. I know this is what you say you do as well but I feel there is a difference. Most of your edits stem from your own findings and reappraisals and do not challenge your thesis (that pterosaurs are not archosaurs). Most (though not all) outside critiques are rejected out-of-hand, and many of these could affect the outcome of your hypothesis.
      Realizing that you were wrong and that someone else pointed that out (instead of you noticing first) is never fun. But it is how science moves forward. You should always be prepared (and indeed looking) for ways to falsify your hypothesis, not just defend it against all comers.
      Semi-related note: would it be possible to send me your updated nexus? I know I have an old one from you but I’m interested in running a few tests myself and would like the most up-to-date data possible. Thanks!

  14. “If Dr. Witton does not even know what pterosaurs are (which he has acknowledged in his book), he has no business acting as an expert on pterosaurs and writing books about them.”

    These are brave, brave words. They are very long-sighted of you to say, Dave. Should no one know the ancestor of a thing, they cannot ever speak of that thing? This is about as wise as telling biologists they cannot discuss biology because they don’t know how life began. We are left to leaving the Burgess Shale biota on the shelf, because we can’t figure out what most of that stuff really is. That’s it, no one can study conodonts!

    The origin of a group is part of the study of that group, but it doesn’t say we cannot discuss what we DO and DO NOT know about them; and right now, those people who work on the origins of pterosaur who are NOT you deal with them just as much as the people who study bats deal with their origins: step by step. Furthermore, Mark Witton has gone leagues beyond your “work” because he published details on why and how pterosaur workers say the things they do, rather than relying on a “methodology” that is inherently flawed its author has never described — that would be you.

    When you can support your observations through scientific methodology, THEN maybe you can preach to Witton about what he can and cannot say.

  15. It’s a topsy turvy world when the refusal to know (Peters 2000 is now 13 years old) the origin of pterosaurs is defended and excused by the lack of knowledge. Not only is there a refusal, there is a complete lack of interest. No one has tested these relationships without cheating them (Hone and Benton 2007, 2008) Why? God help us if Peters (2000) is right. And Jaime, it does no good to tell me I’m wrong just because I’ve signed my name to something. Please be specific with your criticisms.

    • “Refusal to know [self-created “source”]” is not Science, Dave. You’ve created a fiction in your world that your perception is correct. You looked at the cloud and saw a blur, and were CERTAIN it was a true thing, and not a pareidolic shape invented by your brain. You want to see something, and you’ve deluded yourself to see it. You don’t GET Science at all.

      You have YET to produce a result that is replicatable by others using your precise methodology. Mickey tried to work with you on your phylogenetic data, and you tossed away the rebuttal; several others have tried to work with you on the pareidolia of your Photoshop tracings, and you tossed away the rebuttal.

      Gone are the days when we are allowed to build a phylogenetic matrix and just publish consensus trees. Now, we expect to do a lot more work on taxon inclusion/exclusion, character selection and qualification of characters, inclusion/exclusion, and various ratcheting analyses and data-fit analyses. A phylogenetic matrix is the FIRST step, and you won’t even take the second on THAT count.

      No scientist takes these websites as authentic Science being done. It wouldn’t matter even if you were right on any one score, because to find te right thing, you’d have to wade through miles of muck to find it. You won’t do THAT work, so why should anyone else?

      • The interesting thing, Jaime, is that no one has bothered, or rather all have refused to reexamine the fenestrasaurs and publish on them. To your comment on Mortimer’s tree, if anyone else out there thinks theropods were derived from the beaked dinosaurs, please let me know. Mortimer’s tree is the same tree as mine, only upside down.

        Jaime, I encourage you to keyword “Ellenberger” on the blog and discover that he saw these traits long before I did, only his interpretation was biased toward birds.

        If you can be more specific about a “blur” that I have misinterpreted, please let me know. This blackwashing of everything I’ve done over 700 posts is inappropriate and just makes you look like an Alabama governor in the 1950s.

      • Dave, if the issue is that no one is actively addressing old taxa like Cosesaurus or Langobardisaurus that you are aware of, then you need to realize that they’ll just have to wait in line. There are far more taxa out there that barely ever receive the attention these taxa have by dedicated papers or analysis.

        Your methodology has been severely and systematically scrutinized before. It is exhausting to talk to you about specifics because you make SO MANY MISTAKES using a flawed methodology. We address the problems of your methodology, and you refuse to go back to first principles and make sure your OWN, PERSONAL observations are correct. We don’t need to spend more time analyzing things you refused to assess on your own; we are not here to do your work FOR you.

        Your “DGS” is at the heart of virtually ALL of your reasoning regarding pterosaurs and their apparently phylogenetic relationships, but you’ve not demonstrated its accuracy. I could take that method and find shapes in clouds, but that doesn’t make them real either, and the reasoning there is the same: You are discriminating pareidolia, and they ain’t real.

        When you are willing to step back and do your work (from the beginning!) with verifiable techniques, then we’ll talk.

  16. Here is a little helpful tip:leave the science to people that don’t rely on taking photos and squinting at them until they see a pterosaur embryo in some sand matrix or a massive crest were a curator has cut away around the bone. Its palaeontology not a magic eye picture! If any of it was really there another (or a real) palaeontologist would have seen them….

    Throwing a strop and slagging off someone elses hard work, just because he is part of the nasty ‘syndicate of palaeontologists’ taking part a vast conspiracy you think exists to stop your crackpot unscientific hypothesis being accepted, is really out of line, and quite frankly you deserve all the criticism you get.

  17. You’re on another subject, Neil. We’re talking about phylogenetic analysis based on seeing the actual specimens. And you’re also raiding the wastebasket. None of your “evidence” is on the website. Try to stay on task.

    • Did you even read my comment? I’m referring to your ‘book review’ in the blog post on which I’m commenting….besides your phylogenetic analysis is based on characters that only you can see, thanks to your magic eye effect method.

      Its funny how every other review of the book has been positive and yet yours finds ‘holes’ where there are none. Its like reading a creationist website!

  18. Neil, if you’ll look at or any of the tracings here on you’ll see tons of tracings from others. These, along with my own, form the basis for scoring phylogenetic analysis. So, you’ve been falsified and your comments do not reflect what is on the site. If you have specific objections, please bring them to my attention and I’ll fix them if valid. If you just want to blackwash the entire site, then you’ve played that card.

    Regarding reviews, I calls em as I sees em. The ancestors of pterosaurs have been known for over 12 years. Witton refuses to acknowledge they’re still our best bet, better than any archosaur. Did he mention Cosesaurus even once? And where’s the evidence for deep chord wings? I’m still waiting.

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