Don’t let your academic ‘foot’ get caught in this trap.
This post arose
from an online want ad for a student pterosaur tracker posted by Dr. Dave Unwin and his team (see below) at the University of Leicester, England. Earlier we looked at a similar ad seeking a student who could find evidence for the invalidated pterosaur forelimb launch hypothesis. This new ad appears to be similarly doomed by conclusions drawn before the first student applies for this solicitation.
What is it about the English paleontology system
that promotes single-minded and undocumented thinking when it comes to pterosaurs? We’ve seen hyper-biased papers from Hone and Benton (2007, 2009), hyper-biased critiques from Dr. Naish, and pterosaur books authored by Dr. Unwin and Dr. Witton that ignored pertinent studies. Several English PhDs also supported the invalidated and unsupported anterior pteroid hypothesis. All seem to hold that pterosaurs are archosaurs, despite a complete lack of evidence and outgroups for that assertion and plenty of evidence for a lepidosaur tritosaur fenestrasaur origin, that they systematically ignore. All seem to support the invalidated bat-wing, deep-chord pterosaur wing fantasy that finds no evidence in the fossil record. This group holds to the outmoded notion that sparrow- and hummngbird-sized Solnhofen pterosaurs are juveniles, which is easy to dismiss on several grounds. There may be a few more stumble blocks I’ve failed to list here, like isometric growth in pterosaurs.
If you are a student of pterosaurs,
try to avoid the influence of this antiquated and conjoined bastion of pterosaur workers. The text of their want ad demonstrates that, like an earlier solicitation, you will have to arrive at their odd conclusions and support their invalid hypotheses. Rather than that, keep to independent thinking. It may prove to be key to understanding pterosaurs. Follow the data. I did so in my spare time. You can do it, too.
Here’s the ad
(see below in italic blue) with notes added [in brackets[.
The tracks of pterosaurs, and their implications for pterosaur palaeoecology and evolution
David Unwin, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mark Purnell, Department of Geology, University of Leicester (email@example.com)
Richard Butler, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham
Peter Falkingham, School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, Liverpool John Moores University
Brent Breithaupt, 812 S. 13th St., Laramie, WY 82070 USA
From their online ad:
“Pterosaurs, Mesozoic flying reptiles, were long considered to have been almost exclusively confined to aerial niches, with only limited mobility when on the ground (Unwin, 2005).  Two lines of evidence have challenged this view. (1) A rapidly accumulating and increasingly diverse pterosaur track record (pteraichnites) that spans more than 80 million years. (2) Digital modelling, based on skeletal remains and tracks, of pterosaur’s terrestrial locomotory abilities. These studies show that pterosaurs used a flat-footed, four-legged, but nevertheless highly efficient, stance and gait.  They have also uncovered some unexpected behaviours, such as a quadrupedal launch,  that point to a far more effective ability to take-off and land than previously suspected. These new findings suggest that pterosaurs played a much bigger role in Mesozoic terrestrial communities than previously realised (Witton, 2013), but the extent and evolutionary significance of this phenomenon remains unclear and controversial. 
- This is only one of Dr. Unwin’s bogus hypotheses based on his invalidated idea that the hind limbs of basal pterosaurs were encumbered by a uroptagium that bound them together and bat-like deep-chord wings tied the legs to the wings. No pterosaur tracks show limited mobility. No fossil evidence documents either membrane structure.
- Ignored studies (Peters 2000a, 2010, 2011) and many pterosaur tracks indicate that plantigrade quadrupedal pterosaurs are restricted to certain clades, typically while beach combing, and that all pterosaurs were fully capable of bipedal locomotion and launch. Some pterosaurs were digitigrade, as demonstrated by their tracks and their parallel interphalangeal lines (Peters 2000. 2011).
- Bogus. No evidence in the track record. Click here, here and here for counter evidence.
- A bigger role? How do you answer that question?
“This project will use a multidisciplinary approach to reassess the contribution of pterosaurs to Mesozoic continental biotas and their impact on co-evolving groups such as early birds (Benson et al, 2014). New techniques including photogrammetric ichnology will form part of the first systematic analysis of the pterosaur track record.  This work will generate a range of data sets that capture fine detail of prints and tracks that can be combined with contextual data including sedimentology, stratigraphy and associated ichnological and body fossil evidence.
- The Unwin team is ignoring the actual first systematic analysis of the pterosaur track record, published in Ichnos five years ago (Peters 2011). Perhaps they ignore it because that ‘track record’ documented bipedalism, digitigrady and other ‘unapproved’ pterosaur activities and configurations.
“These data sets will underpin three complementary strands of the PhD: (1) reconstruction of the locomotory styles and abilities of pterosaurs (stance, gait, speed, take-of and landing modes) based on key sites in the USA and Europe. (2) The first comprehensive integration of the ichnological and body fossil record of pterosaurs via 3D digitisation of prints and well preserved skeletal remains. (3) Identification and reconstruction of specific behaviours (e.g. feeding, flocking) set within current interpretations of the palaeoenvironments in which they occurred.
Results of these three studies will be combined with data on the relationships and temporal and biogeographic distribution of pterosaurs to determine the extent to which they contributed to Mesozoic terrestrial biotas and influenced the evolution of contemporaneous groups such as birds.
“New approaches to collecting and interpreting prints and tracks including photogrammetry, pioneered by Breithaupt (e.g. Lockely et al., 2016) will be used to generate high fidelity 3D digital data sets based on key sites in the USA (Wyoming), France (Crayssac) and Spain (Asturias) that contain multiple individuals and exceptionally high quality impressions (Unwin, 2005; Witton, 2013).
Identification of track-makers will take advantage of our rapidly expanding knowledge of pterosaur skeletal anatomy and the possibility of highly accurate comparisons between digitised sets of tracks and 3D skeletal elements of the hand and foot.  This approach will be located within a well established phylogenetic framework developed by Unwin and others.  Digital models have been shown to be highly effective at constraining likely stance, gait, velocity and manoeuvrability for extinct taxa (Falkingham and Gatesy, 2014) and will be applied here to both ichnological and skeletal data. The reconstruction of behaviours, palaeoenvironments and the evolutionary history of pterosaur terrestrial palaeoecology, supervised by Butler, will use quantitative approaches set within a phylogenetic framework. 
- This has already been done here and in Ichnos (Peters 2011), but testing, comparisons, confirmations and refutations are always welcome.
- Okay, if you’re going to do this, remember Unwin’s cladogram deletes all the small and tiny Solnhofen pterosaurs that form transitions between larger long-tails and larger short tails. He holds that Darwinopterus is the transitional taxon linking long-tails to short-tails, rather than an evolutionary dead end as shown here, along with several other odd phylogenetic nestings.
- Play by their rules and you will get their PhD. But should you play by their rules? They would love it if you could support their conclusions. Funny that they want an inexperienced and beholding student to do the work they are much better qualified to do, but won’t do. Also odd that they are not open to any and all solutions the data may deliver. After all, reporting conclusions AFTER the data comes in IS the scientific method.
Training and Skills
“Students will benefit from 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. Initially, students will be trained as a single cohort on research methods and core skills. Training will progress to master classes, specific to projects and themes. Specialist training will include identification and interpretation of pterosaur tracks and skeletal anatomy, supervised by Unwin, photogrammetry as applied to palaeoichnology, supervised by Breithaupt and Butler, and analysis of locomotion, supervised by Falkingham. The student will also receive training, supervised by Butler, in data base construction with a particular emphasis on the statistical analysis of palaeontological data.
“Year 1: Familiarisation with literature, existing datasets and palaeoichnological techniques including photogrammetry. Fieldwork in the USA to collect pterosaur track data. Analysis of these data. Presentation at PalAss (UK) and SVPCA (UK).
Year 2: Fieldwork in Spain and France to collect pterosaur track data. Continued analysis of all track data and integration with body fossil record. Analysis of pterosaur locomotory styles. Publication and presentation at SVPCA (UK), EAVP (Europe).
Year 3: Synthesis of results on locomotory abilities, behaviours and palaenvironments. Develop evolutionary history of pterosaurs in terrestrial environments. Publication and presentation at SVPCA (UK), SVP (USA). Write and submit thesis. 
- Having already done much of the work they are asking, I wonder… would I be interested in getting a PhD from the Leicester team? No. I can’t bend that far. But seriously, GOOD LUCK to that candidate, whoever you may be. Negotiate for the scientific method before you sign on.
Partners and collaboration (including CASE)
“Dr Unwin has 30+ years experience of research on pterosaurs, holds extended datasets on pterosaur skeletal anatomy, and palaeoichnology and has access to key specimens that will be studied during this project. Prof Purnell has expertise in analysis of 3D surface datasets in the context of vertebrate ecology and function. Dr Falkingham has worked on fossil footprints for over a decade, using computational techniques including simulation (FEA, DEM, MBD) and digitization (laser scanning, photogrammetry) to study locomotion and footprint formation. Dr Butler has published widely on fossil reptiles, including pterosaurs, and has extensive experience in the application of quantitative approaches to analysis of palaeontological data. Dr Breithaupt has pioneered the development of photogrammetric ichnology, including its application to pterosaur tracks.
Ideally, applicants should have a first degree in the geological or biological sciences and an aptitude for quantitative analysis. At Leicester you will join a dynamic group of researchers, PhD and Masters students developing novel approaches to the analysis of palaeoecology and evolution in fossil vertebrates.
School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester,
19 University Road, Leicester LE1 7RF
Tel: +44 116 252 3946
Benson, R.B.J. et al. 2014. Competition and constraint drove Cope’s rule in the evolution of giant flying reptiles. Nature Communications, 5, 3567, doi: 10.1038/ncomms4567.
Falkingham, P.L. & Gatesy S.M. 2014. The birth of a dinosaur footprint. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 111, 18279-18284.
Lockley, M.G. et al. 2016. Theropod courtship: large scale physical evidence of display arenas and avian-like scrape ceremony behaviour by Cretaceous dinosaurs. Nature: Scientific Reports, 6, nb 18952, doi:10.1038/srep18952.
Unwin, D.M. 2005. The Pterosaurs from Deep Time. Pi Press, New York, 347pp.
Witton, M.P. 2013. Pterosaurs: natural history, evolution, anatomy. Princeton University Press. 291pp.”
Forbidden and ignored references
Notably absent from the above published text and references are the following pertinent and peer-reviewed academic papers that do not support the hypotheses the prospective PhD candidate will have to labor under and support, regardless of the data and results.
Peters D 2000a. Description and interpretation of interphalangeal lines in tetrapods
Ichnos, 7: 11-41
Peters D 2000b. A redescription of four prolacertiform genera and implications for pterosaur phylogenesis. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia 106: 293-336.
Peters D 2002. A new model for the evolution of the pterosaur wing – with a twist. Historical Biology 15: 277-301.
Peters D 2007. The origin and radiation of the Pterosauria. Flugsaurier. The Wellnhofer Pterosaur Meeting, Munich 2007.
Peters D 2009. A reinterpretation of pteroid articulation in pterosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(4):1327–1330.
Peters D 2010. In defence of parallel interphalangeal lines. Historical Biology iFirst article, 2010, 1–6.
Peters D 2011. A catalog of pterosaur pedes for trackmaker identification. Ichnos 18(2):114-141.
For abstracts of the above click here.