Thursday, January 13, 2011

ScienceOnline special: Gwawinapterus

Gwawinapterus by Victoria Arbour, used with her permission.

When I checked in with Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings yesterday morning - a daily occurence for me as it is for many other paleo folks - I felt like a gift had been dropped square in my lap from the Olympian heights. Here I was, organizing my thoughts for ScienceOnline, and staring back at me from Google Reader was the fellow above: Gwawinapterus, a new istiodactylid pterosaur from British Columbia.

The pterosur's describer, Victoria Barbour of the University of Alberta, wrote a guest post at Archosaur Musings which discusses the critter itself and the scrappy fossils (are there any other kind) she had to work with. But I was entranced by the drawing. I emailed Victoria straight away, asking her who drew it and telling her how much I loved the native art influence. I took a stab and guessed at a Tlingit influence. Why Tlingit? Because that's the Pacific native culture that I'm most familiar with. I readily admit that it would be like someone hearing "Whip It" and remarking, "that's a rather nice Beatles song." I'm basically that dope.

I wasn't the only person to ask her about the illustration. Shortly after I sent my email, Arbour posted a nice, long piece about it on her blog, Pseudoplocephalus. It turns out that she drew the critter herself. About the distinctive style, she writes:

Based on comments on some of the news articles that came out yesterday, people seem to either love or hate the colour pattern I chose. That’s ok. The pattern I chose was inspired by the art of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who live on the northern end of Vancouver Island. The name Gwawinapterus is partly derived from the Kwakwala word for Raven, Gwa’wina, because the skull of many istiodactylids remind me of Raven masks.
If you read my recent SciAm Guest Blog post, you might guess that I dig what she's done with this pterosaur's name. I love it when paleontologists draw their nomenclatural inspiration from local history and culture. This doesn't just stem from some progressive desire to see science reach underrepresented people. It's also that inluding a cultural reference in a description of a fossilized animal's bones is a tacit acknowledgement that the cultures we create are part of the environment around us and the Earth under us. Pretending that they're separate is foolish.

I find Arbour's choice refreshing. An illustration of a prehistoric creature is a hypothesis. Given the power our visual sense holds over us, it's all too easy for the viewer to come away with the impression that it's based on more than it is. When people think "sauropod" they envision the Brachiosaurus of Jurassic Park or the Diplodocus herd of Walking with Dinosaurs. They don't think of the sparse collection of bones from which those visuals are built. The truth is, the brachiosaur Alan Grant gawks at on Isla Nublar is about as close to the real thing as the most whimsical children's book illustration.

Working with what little she had, Arbour made some conservative morphological guesses based on the relatives of Gwawinapterus. The choice of such a culturally resonant pattern of color, while not entirely implausible, steps boldly away from the notion of accuracy. It grabs the viewer's attention, makes an emotional impact, and draws them into the story of the animal that inspired it, the far-flung member of a small tribe of pterosaurs. The only pterosaur with teeth known from the late Cretaceous. The speculation this inspires is an important aspect of science, and I imagine that Arbour's fanciful representation of her raven-winged pterosaur will invite many readers to do just that.

Special thanks to Victoria Arbour for allowing me to use her artwork here.


  1. This is fabulous. I would love to see more paleontological illustration in this vein.

  2. I love this!!! Native american style art and dinosaurs- what could be cooler?!?!?!


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