Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life's a Pterosaur Beach

I stand up next to a mountain
Illustration by Mark Witton, via flickr

Amazing! Can you imagine one of these beasts landing in a parking lot and fighting a bunch of gulls for french fries and hamburger buns? This is Quetzalcoatlus, member of the Azhdarchid family, which contained the largest pterosaurs we've yet found. The illustrator, of whose skills I am entirely envious, is paleontologist and pterosaur specialist Mark Witton. And yes, of course I know that pterosaurs aren't dinosaurs. But they are their neighbors, and this here blog is intended to deal with all of our dearly missed mesozoic friends. And fascinating, beautiful, imagination-bending neighbors they were.

And they're in the news this week! By some lovely quirk of fate, the tracks left by a pterosaur as it landed were preserved in the mud of the wonderfully named Pterosaur Beach, in France. It's home to many sets of pterosaur tracks, but this is the first time we've found a set that chronicles the act of landing. They landed like birds, on both feet, hopping to stop themselves (and likely using their wings to slow down). It doesn't solve the mystery of how they took off, but it's a really cool new insight into how they got around.

Another recent development is that the "hair" of pterosaurs, which really isn't similar to the fur we mammals sport, has a name of its own: pycnofibers. We've also recently discovered that pterosaurs had special pycnofibers on their wings, called actinofibrils. We'd previously wondered if maybe the hair-like patterns were a side effect of decomposition, but now we know that these actinofibrils covered their wings. Now the next step is to figure out what they may have been made of and what purpose they served. Heat regulation? Flight control? General dandiness?

ALSO: The BBC has just begun a series of videos which will chronicle a project at the University of Portsmouth to build five life-size replicas of pterosaurs. The first, featuring Witton, is up now, and deals with how the team will use fossils to extrapolate the rest of the pterosaurs' bodies, which are sculpted in styrofoam. The end result should be amazing.

1 comment:

  1. I vote for General Dandiness. Oh, wait. Is that the dude who runs the army?


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