National Geographic brings back pterosaurs: Nov. 2017

Years ago,
National Geographic (Monastersky R, May 2001?) put out an article on pterosaurs that marveled at their wonder.

This year,
National Geographic (Conniff R, Nov 2017) put out another article that was supposed to be an update, but turned out to be less than hoped. The entire article and artwork is online and it, too, marvels at their wonder. Reporter Conniff crossed the globe to visit paleontologists in the field at Big Bend National Park seeking Quetzalcoatlus, a house full of footprints in Washington DC, and  to see the latest finds in Beijing, many not yet published. The article features wonderful photographs, of course, and some great information. There was also much to criticize here.

I’m not happy with

  1. the Quetzalcoatlus photo leaning on its tiny fingers and rising to a digitigrade stance. But that’s the fault of the sculptor, following Witton, etc.
  2. re: Darwinopterus with egg, “evidence that for some male pterosaurs, as for some modern birds, big, brightly colored crests probably functioned as a sexual display device.” No. They found a female. Males might have been crestless in that Darwinopterus species, too. No specimen has yet been found to match “Mrs. T” but with the addition of a crest. All Darwinopterus specimens so far are specifically and/or generically distinct.
  3. The gatefold artwork has several errors, including the cladogram nesting pterosaurs between crocs and dinos, deep chord wings, joined uropatagia, and a diagram of Habib’s pole-vaulting takeoff.
  4. Michael Habib, reported, “They (scientific illustrators) basically take a bird model and put a membrane wing and a crest on it, but pterosaur proportions were not birdlike.” Frankly, I have never seen this. Nor do all pterosaurs have certain proportions. Nor do all birds.
  5. Habib reported on the first pterosaurs arising from “light, strong reptiles adapted for running and leaping after prey. Jumping – to catch on insect or dodge a predator – evolved into ‘jumping and not coming down for a while.” He has no idea what pterosaurs are and with this sounds like a Creationist telling a ‘just so’ story lacking evidence.
  6. Habib reiterated his invalid pole-vaulter hypothesis because “taking off from land with an upright, bipedal stance, as other researchers had proposed, would have shattered the femurs of larger species.” Perhaps Habib forgets that most pterosaurs, including the original ones were not ‘larger species’ and that at the same time the flapping wings were producing several times more thrust than the legs. And femurs are not prone to shatter in any tetrapods ‘doing their thing.’ On the same point, Habib reports pterosaurs often had “freakishly small feet”, (only the ornithocheirids), omitting the fact that most pterosaurs had normal feet while some, like Pterodaustro had large feet.
  7. “Pterosaur wings consist of a membrane attached to each flank from shoulder to ankle”. Evidence only supports a wingtip to elbow wing membrane (Peters 2002).
  8. “Changing the angle of a wrist bone called the pteroid may have given them the equivalent of the leading-edge slats on a passenger jet, for increased lift at low speeds.” No. The pteroid was relatively immobile, passively folding the propatagium whenever the wing finger was folded.
  9. “The result is that pterosaurs have begun to look less like a train wreck in the sky and more like sophisticated aviators.” No animal evolves to be a train wreck, no matter how much pterosaur workers try to imagine them that way.
  10. When asked about the giant heads, Habib avoided the right answer and talked about brains and hollow bones. Here Habib is quoted as calling pterosaurs, “giant flying murder heads.” Perfect for Halloween, or comedians. Not so much for the scientifically curious.
  11. Following a discussion of a feud between J-C Lü and X. Wang, who went their separate ways, the following is reported: 

“We’re a very small group, and we don’t really get along,” one pterosaur specialist says. The field, says another, “has a reputation for people who viciously despise one another.” Pterosaur researcher A will readily volunteer that B is “a waste of carbon,” while C independently remarks of A that certain people “would happily see him at the bottom of the ocean.” Their combat is a natural by-product of all those optimistic hypotheses built on fragmentary evidence, and it makes the Chinese rivalry look like a tea party. Lü shrugs off talk of mutual loathing, and Wang manages to avoid talking about it at all.”

There is no reason for this to take place
or to be aired out in public. We’ve seen enough of this. It has to stop. Again, it makes all paleontologists look bad when we demean one another instead of focusing on the work itself. That being said, workers should not hold themselves up as pterosaur experts unless they can tell reporters:

  1. what pterosaurs are (what animals they evolved from)
  2. the only valid wing shape and stance (maybe show evidence)
  3. why certain pterosaurs had big heads (often without a crest)
  4. that they could not know what they know without the collections, data and analyses of their esteemed colleagues
Peters D 2002. A New Model for the Evolution of the Pterosaur Wing – with a twist. – Historical Biology 15: 277–301.
Nat Geo pterosaur article online here



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