Figure 1. From Tetrapod Zoology with this caption, “Cover of TREE featuring Knell et al. (2012). Image (featuring male and female Pteranodon with obvious sexual dimorphism) by Mark Witton.” Naish’s statement has been shown to be false. Attention to detail and rigorous phylogenetic testing provides other results (Fig. 2) in which these two inaccurately portrayed Pteranodon specimens actually represent distinct species. In general, smaller skulls with smaller crests are phylogenetically closer to the ancestral germanodactylids with smaller skulls and smaller crests. Not only does that make sense, it can be demonstrated phylogenetically (Fig. 2). See the juvenile? Cute, but inaccurate. (see below).
An April post at Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology was headlined, “Dinosaurs and their ‘exaggerated structures’: species recognition aids, or sexual display devices?” (refs below).
Naish wrote, “Our latest paper is devoted to a discussion of the species recognition hypothesis and, specifically, why we think it’s problematic and should be discarded. We’ve noted that dinosaur workers have increasingly taken to mentioning species recognition whenever they discuss exaggerated structures (see list of citations in Hone & Naish 2013), so now is a good time to try and set the record straight.”
Figure 2. Click to enlarge. A family tree of Pteranodon and Nyctosaurus derived from Germanodactylus. Note the size increase is gradual. So is the crest size increase. Of all these many specimens, can you tell which are male and which are female? I can’t. There are no two skulls, sans crests, that are identical in morphology. You can’t divide this set of illustrations into two genders, and yet, according to Naish you should be able to. Attention to detail indicates there’s also much more to skull morphology than crest shape.
Is it possible to ascertain that small crested specimens are females?
Or are small crested specimens just in the lineage of large crested specimens? Contra Naish, species recognition helps us identify various dinosaurs with all their crests, horns and feathers. The same is true of pterosaurs and you can test this with phylogenetic analysis (Fig. 2). If this was gender identification in Pteranodon, there should be just two forms relatively close to one another for each of the above skulls. But no two here are even that much alike. Instead they form a series of gradually evolving shapes, which defines them as distinct individuals and species. Interestingly, there is a derived size decrease in specimens R, S, T and Z4.
The image in figure 1 also shows a juvenile Pteranodon with an appropriately short crest and short beak. Well, we have a juvenile Pteranodon (Fig. 2) and it doesn’t have any indication of a short beak, but retains the proportions of an adult, and a specific adult at that, YPM 2594, which is likewise known from a posterior skull without a complete rostrum.
Pteranodon is the Cretaceous equivalent of Darwin’s finches.
Rapid diversification in Pteranodon originated as individual variation that was enhanced over the generations by natural selection. Pteranodon was not just one or two species, but dozens, as is plainly evident when you look at dozens all once (Fig. 2). That’s the value of accurate reconstruction, something most pterosaur workers avoid like the flu.
Getting back to sexual dimorphism
Naish wrote, “And we absolutely reject Padian & Horner’s (2013) argument that sexual dimorphism is essential for the recognition of sexual selection: there’s unambiguous evidence from the living world that sexual selection is at play even when dimorphism is absent (Hone et al. 2012, Knell et al. 2012, 2013).”
To Naish’s point, there is always sexual dimorphism, whether presented in skeletal differences, beards, breasts, genitals, feathers or pheromones. Sometimes it’s more obvious. Sometimes less. In pterosaurs no one has ever been able to document male vs female differences in the skeleton, even when there’s an egg between the legs of an obvious female, a subject we looked at earlier. Males, as best as we can ascertain were outwardly identical. Crests appeared on various darwinopterids during speciation, as we looked at earlier. Some have even been named new genera by various workers.
Unfortunately, at least in pterosaurs,
there’s no evidence for gender identification that can stand up under the scrutiny of phylogenetic analysis. We don’t see only two kinds of Pterodactylus. We see several (with not one tested specimen identical to another). We don’t see only two kinds of Rhamphorhynchus. We see dozens. Lack of reconstructions and lack phylogenetic analysis leads paleontologists like Darren Naish into supposition and assumption. What’s “obvious” to him is only obvious because he hasn’t tested it to see if it is indeed true. Testing, not supposition, is what makes good Science.
And by the way,
Naish and those who are in his camp are among those who think (without testing) that tiny pterosaurs are juveniles of larger taxa. Bennett (2006) made this supposition, but his study did not stand up to phylogenetic analysis. Tiny Solnhofen pterosaurs of all sizes and shapes nest at the bases of several major clades and are the transitional taxa from one clade to another as each phylogenetic series gradually decreases then increases in size.
Darren Naish and Modular Evolution
Naish wrote, “So it’s almost as if the head and neck were evolving at different rates from the rest of the body: in other words, Darwinopterus looks like a classic case of ‘mosaic evolution’ or modularity (hence the species name). This much-discussed evolutionary phenomenon has been considered controversial, in part due to a lack of good examples: Darwinopterus looks like one of the best yet discovered, and this isn’t lost on Lü et al. (2009).”
A lack of good examples indeed! This hypothesis applies only to Darwinopterus in order to cover up a lack of good phylogenetic analysis, which you can see here.
Of course, there’s no such thing as “modular evolution,” made famous during the Darwinopterus bungle, but Naish embraced this fairy tale without criticism. If true we’d see it on other taxa and in other clades, but we don’t It was invented for Darwinopterus. If modular evolution were true we’d have less confidence in our reconstructions of partial skeletons because heads would be evolving leaving the legs far behind, as imagined for Darwinopterus. In reality the palate evolves along with the toes and everything else. In reality Darwinopterus is a dead end taxa leaving no known descendants, but it did convergently evolve a large skull and smaller naris. Phylogenetic analysis settles that issue.
That being said…
There’s much more in Naish’s blog that is good Science and worth considering. If interested, follow this link. He’s just got an Achilles heel when it comes to pterosaurs.
So, there’s more to Pteranodon that just size and crests.
We know of a variety of post-crania as well, some robust and some gracile with various humerus shapes (Fig. 3). Only a few Pteranodon specimens are known from associated skulls and post-crania. So, which post-crania go with which crania? We can only guesstimate now and earlier some effort was made toward this goal. Small ones were more primitive, at least the ones known at present.
Figure 3. Click to enlarge. Various Pteranodon specimens known from post-crania. Note the yellow box includes one of the largest specimens, but it has an unfused extensor tendon process, which may mean it is a very large Nyctosaurus with fingers.
If Naish is right
and there is “obvious” sexual dimorphisim in Pteranodon, let him (or someone!) present three or four pairs of males and females, then subject them to phylogenetic analysis. The gender pairs should match with their mates if true.
And finally, we need to talk about the “female” pelvis in Pteranodon.
It’s morphologically closer to Nyctosaurus as reported here. And, yes, it’s a big pelvis, but we have further evidence of Pteranodon-sized Nyctosaurus, because the former fused the extensor tendon process and the latter did not, as reported here , and we know of a very larger unfused extensor tendon process on what others have identified as a Pteranodon based on its size.
No matter what crap they throw*,
I’m not going to let Naish and Witton disfigure and fantasize pterosaurs when good solid evidence is available to counter their traditional and mistaken hypotheses. Credit will also be given when appropriate.
* By “crap,” I mean blackwashing statements that contain no pertinent specifics or evidence. You’ll know them when you see them.
Bennett SC 2006. Juvenile specimens of the pterosaur Germanodactylus cristatus, with a review of the genus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26:872–878.SMNS
Bennett SC 1992. Sexual dimorphism of Pteranodon and other pterosaurs, with comments on cranial crests. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 12: 422–434.
Knell R, Naish D, Tompkins JL and Hone DW E 2012. Sexual selection in prehistoric animals: detection and implications. Trends in Ecology and Evolution28, 38-47.
Naish D and Cuthill IC 2012. Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs? Lethaia 45, 139-156.
Naish D, Tomkins JL and Hone DWE 2013. Is sexual selection defined by dimorphism alone? A reply to Padian and Horner. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2013.02.007