Thursday, March 10, 2011
The Mysteries of the Pterosaur Wing
A pterosaur model from the 2010 Royal Society Summer Festival. Photo by Mark Hillary, via Flickr.
Pterosaurs, among the most enigmatic of the prehistoric beasts, have been the subject of a colorful variety of reconstructions in the two centuries of their study. From their essential nature - even once imagined to have been flying marsupials - to their feeding habits and methods of locomotion, they've kept the brains of paleontologists buzzing and whirring.
In the newest issue of the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Ross Elgin, Dave Hone, and Eberhard Frey take a look across the pterosaur family to determine what evidence we have for the extent of their wing membranes. This may sound familiar to you; Hone posted about it at Archosaur Musings in September, but noted that what had come available then were uncorrected proofs. The published version is now available online. [PDF].
Like Victoria Arbour's recent paper on the pelvic shields of ankylosaurs, what Elgin, Hone, and Frey do here is provide a summary look at a contested bit of anatomy and lay groundwork for future research. Their conclusion is that this membrane - the brachiopatagium for you lovers of multisyllabic jargon - attached at the ankle. In the past, various researchers have attached it to places all along the leg or to the body, free of the leg completely. Based on their analysis of numerous fossils, Elgin et al concluded that these other attachment sites are erroneous, and chosen due to distortions in the wing profile before or after the animal died and was preserved.
As Hone wrote in September, though the exact arrangement of the branches and twigs of the pterosaur family tree is still a contested matter, "it’s hard to ignore the possibility (and indeed most parsimonious explanation) that all pterosaurs likely had this attachment. At the very least, it should be the default assumption."
Just in case you don't already know, Hone is essential reading for pterosaur lovers. This week, he's been posting photos of various pterosaur fossils (start here) from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, and in 2008 he gave a nice review of knowledge about pterosaur soft tissues.