The AMNH animated Jeholopterus

Updated March 3, 2015 with the addition of a dorsal view of Jeholopterus.

About a year ago
the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City (NYC) put on a pterosaur display, both in their halls and online.

Their animated portrayal
of the Late Jurassic Chinese pterosaur, Jeholopterus, caught my eye (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Animated GIF created by the AMNH for their web page on Jeholoopterus. Note the complete lack of an airfoil in the wing, the lack of muscles in the limbs, the presence of a uropatagium between the hind limbs, the lack of a tail, eyes set on the sides of a blockhead skull, and no care to reproduce the wide ribcage. In short, there is little that is accurate about this otherwise wonderfully animated pterosaur. And where is all the long hair that should be there?

Figure 1. Animated GIF created by the AMNH for their web page on Jeholoopterus. Note the complete disregard for its preserved anatomy, the  lack of an airfoil in the wing, the lack of muscles in the limbs, the presence of a uropatagium between the hind limbs, the lack of a tail, eyes set on the sides of a blockhead skull, and no care to reproduce the wide ribcage. In short, there is little that is accurate about this otherwise wonderfully animated pterosaur. And where is all the long hair that should be there? The animator was gifted, but the blueprint was largely imaginary.

One wonders what the animators used for reference… certainly not the fossil.
This animation lacks all the traits that make Jeholopterus unique: the up-curved jawline, the forward angled eyes, the very hairy body, the broad ribcage and belly, the deep chest, the low attachment of the wing, the large-boned limbs, the surgically curved claws, the huge feet with a very large digit 5, a longish tail and longer wings. Also lacking here is a wing with a decent airfoil section, a proper trailing edge stretched between the wing tip and elbow, large limb muscles and paired uropatagia behind each hind limb. And where does that box-like skull come from??

This is an old-school pterosaur cartoon,
lacking almost everything we know about this complete and articulated fossil. For comparison, a reconstruction is offered here (Fig. 2) based on precise tracings.

Figure 3. Click to enlarge. The Jeholopterus holotype (left) alongside the referred specimen (right). No doubt they were related, but were likely not conspecific. The one on the right was an insect eater. The one on the left was specialized for drinking dinosaur blood.

Figure 3. Click to enlarge. The Jeholopterus holotype (left) alongside the referred specimen (right). No doubt they were related, but were likely not conspecific. The one on the right was an insect eater. The one on the left was specialized for drinking dinosaur blood.

Jeholopterus had so many traits distinct from those of other anurognathid pterosaurs, that it deserves more respect than the AMNH gave it. Seems they purposely avoided describing it for what it is… a vampire pterosaur (details here). Would have been a bigger draw and a more accurate presentation had they just paid attention to the details.

The genesis of this post
came from an Ask.MetaFilter.com post on binocular vision in pterosaurs posted by Hactar, who wrote: “I am trying to find any information about binocular vision in pterosaurs. This past weekend, I went to the Museum of Natural History’s exhibition on pterosaurs. Their illustrations for Jeholopterus varied greatly in the placement of they eyes from on the sides of the head to facing forward (third picture on the page). (The second image caused me to dub it “freaky monkey pterosaur.”)  So how much binocular vision did pterosaurs have? I have found a couple of scattered references to family Anurognathus (of which Jeholopterus is a genus) having binocular vision, based on the structure of ear [sic] canals. Were these pterosaurs unique in having binocular vision, or did pteranodons and other pterosaurs have vision like a raptors instead of like a tern or pigeon? Links to academic articles are acceptable, I have confederates who can access articles for me. Please nothing by David Peters. From what I can read, his work on pterosaurs is at best somewhat wrong and generally completely inaccurate, which is a shame as he seems to be the only one who has posted anything online about this. (If the site mentions Jeholopterus as a vampire, skip it).”

Several things jump out here: 

  1. The AMNH did not edit their artwork. As noted above, one piece of artwork had lateral eyes. The other had anterior eyes.
  2. Science is a process that can be repeated by anyone. Therefore, Hactar could have taken a skull photo of Jeholopterus (or any other binocular pterosaur, like Batrachognathus), and traced the elements to arrive at his/her own skull reconstruction.
  3. If my work on pterosaurs varies from “somewhat wrong to completely inaccurate,” then I am at a loss as to how to explain the internal consistency of sister taxa that not only nest in complete resolution, but gradually evolve from one to another, apparently modeling the actual evolution of the group with stone cold logic. I also note that no one else is producing accurate tracings AND reconstructions based on those tracings. The alternative, of course, is to accept hopeful monsters, like Bennett’s anurognathid, or Andres’ hypothesis that anurognathids begat pterodactyloids, or Unwin’s uropatagium and other such fanciful hypotheses.

And like I said earlier,
this is Science, so you don’t have to accept anyone’s word for whatever you’re trying to figure out. You can find out for yourself by tracing the specimen and creating your own reconstruction. If my observations and hypotheses cannot be replicated, please send me your interpretations so they can be repaired here.

Figure 4. Jeholopterus in dorsal view. Here the robust hind limbs, broad belly and small skull stand out as distinct from other anurognathids. Click to enlarge.

Figure 4. Jeholopterus in dorsal view. Here the robust hind limbs, broad belly and small skull stand out as distinct from other anurognathids. Click to enlarge.

Don’t just repeat the propaganda ad nauseum.
The data is set in stone. Go get it and you’ll find the process rewarding.

References
Cheng X, Wang X, Jiang S and Kellner AWA 2014. Short note on a non-pterodactyloid pterosaur from Upper Jurassic deposits of Inner Mongolia, China. Historical Biology (advance online publication) DOI:10.1080/08912963.2014.974038
Kellner AWA, Wang X, Tischlinger H, Campos DA, Hone DWE and Meng X 2010. The soft tissue of Jeholopterus (Pterosauria, Anurognathidae, Batrachognathinae) and the structure of the pterosaur wing membrane. Proc Royal Soc B 277: 321–329.
Peters D 2003. The Chinese vampire and other overlooked pterosaur ptreasures. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23(3): 87A.
Wang X, Zhou Z, Zhang F and Xu X 2002. A nearly completely articulated rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur with exceptionally well-preserved wing membranes and “hairs” from Inner Mongolia, northeast China. Chinese Science Bulletin 47(3): 226-230.

wiki/Jeholopterus

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