Artist and paleontologist Mark Witton, U of Portsmouth,
published an iconic image of an azhdarchid pterosaur biting a baby sauropod prior to eating and digesting it (Fig. 1, Witton and Naish 2008). While biting a baby dinosaur in this fashion certainly was possible, could this azhdarchid swallow and digest it? Let’s see.
A skeletal view of the same azhdarchid
to the same scale (Fig. 1 below) shows the approximate lungs (blue), heart (red), liver (brown), stomach (green), intestines (pink), kidneys (red brown) and bladder (yellow) along with the same baby dinosaur reduced slightly due to perspective. The wing membranes are also repaired. The tiny sternum is shown on the chest of the biting azhdarchid, another factor in giant azhdarchid flightlessness.
Based on the given parameters
the azhdarchid stomach (green) does not appear to be able to accommodate such a large meal all at once.
The analogous saddle-billed stork
(Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Fig. 2) eats what appears to be a similar-sized meal, but note the abdomen of the bird is relatively much larger than that of the azhdarchid and the meal is relatively smaller, much more flexible, without limbs, largely meat/muscle content and wet. Unfortunately Witton and Naish did not consider stomach size in their PlosOne paper.
An alternative wading lifestyle,
(Figs. 2, 3) dismissed by Witton and Naish 2008, appears to be more appropriate, based on the stomach size and other wading stork-like traits evidenced by azhdarchids. In LiveScience.com writer Jeanna Bryner (link below) wrote, ‘Witton and Naish learned that more than 50 percent of the azhdarchid fossils had been found inland. Other skeletal features, including long hind limbs and a stiff neck, also didn’t fit with a mud-prober or skim-feeder. All the details of their anatomy, and the environment their fossils are found in, show that they made their living by walking around, reaching down to grab and pick up animals and other prey,” Naish said.
“Their tiny feet also ruled out wading in the water or probing the soft mud for food. “Some of these animals are absolutely enormous,” Witton told LiveScience. “If you go wading out into this soft mud, and you weigh a quarter of a ton, and you’ve got these dinky little feet, you’re going to just sink in.”
We don’t know how soft the mud was
wherever azhdarchids fed. Analogous herons and storks seem to deal with underwater mud very well with similarly-sized feet. Witton and Naish report, “Some storks with relatively small feet are known to wade indicating that azhdarchids may have been capable of some wading activity, but the high masses of large azhdarchids may have limited their ability to wade on soft substrates. Moreover, other pterodactyloids with larger pedal surface areas (most notably ctenochasmatoids) were almost certainly better adapted waders than azhdarchids. In view of this evidence, we suggest that azhdarchids were not habitual, although perhaps faculatative, waders.”
Don’t you wish the authors had performed some sort of test
to show azhdarchids were not like storks? Perhaps they could have employed a tank full of water and a variety of mud-like, sand-like and pebble-like substrates with a model azhdarchid foot and hand (btw, halving the weight of the azhdarchid directed through the feet) pressed with increasing weight to gauge the amount of sink. Instead they relied on their imaginations and made suggestions based on their initial bias. Nor did they discuss the factor of the hands supporting half the weight, nor the possibility of floating on the surface, polling with the hands and feet (Fig. 4), producing manus-only tracks, which are documented.
Witton and Naish did not attempt to show the maximum size of an object an azhdarchid stomach could handle, shown above (Fig. 1). In hindsight, that would have negated their dinosaur-killer hypothesis and the reason for their paper.
Witton and Naish 2008 report,
“Scavenging storks and corvids manage to open carcasses quickly and bite off pieces of flesh without the aid of curved jaw tips. Therefore, it seems almost certain that azhdarchids would have been capable of feeding upon at least some elements of large carcasses, although their long skulls and necks would inhibit their ability to obtain flesh from the deepest recesses of a corpse. However, although carrion was a likely component of azhdarchid diets, they possess no anatomical features to suggest they were obligate scavengers.”
Now you can ask,
did this azhdarchid (Fig. 1) kill this baby sauropod and then pick the meat from the bone? It is important to consider this and other possibilities. If so, the best meat would have come from the base of the tail and proximal limbs, not the neck or ‘breast.’
what azhdarchids did ever since they were the size of tiny pterodactylids (Fig. 5) in the Late Jurassic is nibbling on bottom-dwelling prey. Larger, older, later azhdarchids were able to feed further out from shore in deeper ponds than smaller taxa and younger azhdarchids. Witton and Naish did not discuss azhdarchids in a phylogenetic context evolving from tiny wading taxa. That is unfortunate because phylogeny is the backstory that informs every taxon. Phylogeny solves so many issues. That’s why the LRT and LPT (large pterosaur tree) could be so important for paleo workers, but, so far, they prefer not to use it.
Witton and Naish began their 2015 introduction with, “Azhdarchids are among the most aberrant and remarkable of pterodactyloid pterosaurs.” Not really, As figure 5 shows, azhdarchids were simply larger versions of their small to tiny Late Jurassic ancestors, some of whom were also flightless waders.
Witton MP and Naish D 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE 3(5): e2271. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0002271
Witton MP and Naish D 2015. Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or “terrestrial stalkers”?. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 60(3), 651-660