Wang et al. 2014 introduced us
two years ago to a new collection of pterosaur parts from a monotypic population that was swept together and disarticulated by a flood event. As you may recall, five well-preserved three-dimensional eggs were recovered from the Early Cretaceous site in northwestern China. Sexual dimorphism was identified for the first time in pterosaurs with two different types of crests appeared on a variety of sizes of skulls (Figs. 1, 2). They named the new specimen, Hamipterus tianshanensis and the holotype was described as, “One complete presumed female skull (IVPP V18931.1)”.
Figure 1. The female holotype and male paratype from the Hamipterus population assemblage fossil. The second tracing enlarges the male skull to the same length as the female skull. The color bar overprints indicate parts that differ in length from one skull to the other and a second overlay traces tooth position shifts from one to another. The vestigial naris appears between the nasal and jugal beneath the crest. Direct comparisons like this help reveal subtle differences that otherwise might be overlooked.
Such a sweeping together of so many individuals
provides an unprecedented insight into several areas of pterosaur biology, but the data need to be rigorously examined so as not to jump to any conclusions.
Visible differences in the two skulls
- Crest shape
- Tooth placement
- Ventral maxilla shape
- Lateral extent of the premaxilla
- Depth of the skull anterior to the antorbital fenestra
- Concave vs. straight rostral margin (sans crest)
- Length of the upper temporal fenestra
- Placement of the vestigial naris
- Suborbital depth of the jugal
Wang et al. report, “About 40 male and female individuals in total were recovered, but the actual number associated might be in the hundreds. All of the discovered skulls have crests, which exhibit two different morphologies in size, shape, and robustness. Although morphological variation could be interpreted as individual variation, these marked differences suggest that the skulls belong to different genders. Hamipterus tianshanensis contradicts this hypothesis, because this species indicates that morphology of the crest, rather than its presence.”
Consider what we know about gender differences in birds and lizards,
It may be too soon to generalize over gender differences in pterosaurs. While each gender could have its own signature crest, size, etc., likewise each species likely had its own signature identity/crest/color/call, plumage, etc. At present, no other pterosaurs show verifiable gender differences. That’s why the Wang et al. paper was so important. Gender differences described for both Darwinopterus and Pteranodon were shown to be phylogenetic. Darwinopterus does present a mother with an aborted egg, but the father of the egg has not been identified. Hamipterus offers the best opportunity, so far, to bring some data to the table on this topic. And what Wang et al. indicate may indeed be true.
However, not enough care, IMHO, was administered to the non-crest differences in the skull material was made. Considering just the arrangement of teeth in the jaws (Fig. 1), is it possible that two very closely related species lived near one another? Or did individual variation cover a wider gamut than we now think is reasonable? Remember, among all the Pteranodon specimens now known (to me, at least), no two are identical. The same can be said for the Rhamphorhynchus and Pterodactylus specimens. And when you give Hamipterus a rigorous study, several subtle variations arise. Some of these arise from crushing. Others do not. With given data, one wonders if these could be two Hamipterus variations could be very closely related and.or very closely nesting sister taxa. OR… with present data, gender differences could extend beyond just the crest.
It is also possible
that male pterosaurs were rare rogues and this was a colony of females only with lots of individual variation. Do male lizards help raise their young? Do females? No. But pterosaurs might have been different. Wang et al. report on 40 individuals, but not on the male/female ratio or how many skulls are known. There were three in the holotype block. I’m guessing their specimen count was based on 40 skulls.
Figure 2. Finishing up the large skull with the large crest with two smaller candidates reveals that the slightly better fit is with the female skull.
Wang et al. report, “Ontogenetic variation is reflected mainly in the [lateral] expansion of the [spoon-shaped in dorsal view] rostrum.” Wang et al. reinforce what we know from other pterosaurs that they developed isometrically. Note the similarity between the crests of the smaller and larger ‘male’ specimens (Fig. 2). We’ve seen that before with Tupuxuara juveniles (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. Presumed ontogenetic skull and crest development in Tupuxuara. Note the eyes are small and the rostrum is long in juveniles. Only the crest expands and only posteriorly. Are are these two different sized but otherwise related species? With that longer rostrum, the smaller specimen may be distinct phylogenetically. No small crest Tupuxuara specimens are known.
Wang et al. report, “Tempestite interlayers where nearly all of the pterosaur fossils are found suggest that large storms caused the mass mortality, event deposits, and lagersta¨ tte of the pterosaur population.”
Wang et al. discussed what Hamipterus is not. Their analysis nested it at the base of the Ornithocheiridae with complete lack of resolution. The large pterosaur tree nests Hamipterus with complete resolution between Boreopterus and Zhenyuanopterus.
Wang et al. report, “A total of five eggs were recovered from the same site. The outer surface is smooth and exhibits no ‘papilla-like ornamentation,’ as was reported of the first pterosaur egg found in China.” Well that was a giant anurognathid egg, for which finding the parent will be big news. I’d be more interested to see comparisons to the second pterosaur egg found in China, the JZMP egg/embryo, which belonged to a rather closely related [to Hamipterus] ornithocheirid.
Wang et al. report, “Due to the close proximity to Hamipterus tianshanensis, the sole taxon found at the site, all of the eggs are referred to this species. Compared with other reptiles, the Hamipterus eggs show more similarities with some squamates,” I love it when every bit of data supports the theory that pterosaurs are lepidosaurs.
Wang et al. report, a 60µm calcareous eggshell followed by a thin 11µm inner membrane. They compared that to a snake egg of similar dimensions with a 60µm calcareous membrane followed by a much thicker 200µm inner membrane. Then they speculate wildly with this imaginative statement, “It is possible that Hamipterus also had a much thicker membrane, which was not completely preserved. We propose that such an eggshell structure, similar to that of some snakes, may well explain the preservation of the outer surface observed in pterosaur eggs.” IMHO, paleontologists go too far when they try to explain away data, rather than dealing with it directly. Elgin, Hone and Frey (2011) did this with their infamous wing membranes which they speculated suffered from imagined “shrinkage” in order to protect their verifiably false deep chord wing membrane hypothesis.
Wang et al report, “The [egg] size differences might also reflect different stages of development, since mass and dimensions differ between recently laid eggs and more developed ones.” There’s another possibility. Since we know that half-sized female pterosaurs were of breeding age (Chinsamy et al. 2008) they could have laid smaller eggs, producing smaller young, one source of rapid phylogenetic miniaturization.
Wang et al. report, “The combination of many pterosaurs and eggs indicates the presence of a nesting site nearby and suggests that this species developed gregarious behavior. Hamipterus likely made its nesting grounds on the shores of freshwater lakes or rivers and buried its eggs in sand along the shore, preventing them from being desiccated.” There’s another possibility. Since pterosaurs are lepidosaurs, they could have retained the eggs in utero until the young were ready to hatch. That also prevents them from desiccation. Since the flood tore the bones apart, any in utero eggs would have been torn away from the mother as well.
Notable by its absence
is any report of embryo bones inside the eggshells. I presume none were found or they would have been reported. That’s a shame, too, because eggs are nice little containers for complete skeletons, something lacking at the Hamipterus site. Some of the eggs appear to be evacuated, as if they were empty when buried. Or maybe all the juices were squeezed out during the rush and tumble of flood waters. If there was an embryo inside one of the Hamipterus eggs, and that is likely as the egg shell is applied just before egg laying, the embryo might have looked something like this (Fig. 3) based on the other pterosaur embryos inside their own two-dimensional eggs and the appearance of more complete sister taxa. During taphonomy the embryo inside would have been shaken AND stirred (but note some skulls are preserved complete without destruction!). The three dimensional egg contents would not accumulate on the randomly chosen longitudinal saw cut.
Figure 3. Wang et al. sliced one of the eggs lengthwise (yellow). if there is an embryo inside, it might have looked something like this. Since the egg has not been crushed to two dimensions, all the bones would not be now located in the plane of the slice, which was a random cut, not recognizing any embryo inside. Other embryos are typically in this pose.
of this size were precocial, able to fly shortly after hatching and large enough not to suffer from desiccation caused by so much surface area compared to volume.
Chinsamy A, Codorniú L and Chiappe LM 2008. Developmental growth patterns of the filter-feeder pterosaur, Pterodaustro guinazui. Biology Letters, 4: 282-285.
Elgin RA, Hone DWE, and Frey E. 2011.The extent of the pterosaur flight membrane. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56 (1), 2011: 99-111 doi:10.4202/app.2009.0145 online pdf
Wang X et al.*, 2014. Sexually Dimorphic Tridimensionally Preserved Pterosaurs and Their Eggs from China, Current Biology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.04.054