Guys, palaeontology is not some big fun guessing game. We're not pulling things out of our ass for fun. We have a LOT of ways to tell what an extinct animal may have looked like. Everything from scars on bones, mathematic calculations on load bearing, soft tissue impressions, understanding modern biology, signs of rate of growth, preserved organic materials - we can tell a LOT from fossils. We can get pretty good ideas of how things probably looked. We can definitely get a broad idea of an animal, its shape, its size. Even things like colour, patterning, and integument follow recognisable rules and trends. Maybe we can't get everything absolutely certain, and maybe there are some areas we're questioning, but we do have ideas grounded in reasonable assumptions.
No, T. rex did not look like a round, soft bird. No, plesiosaurs were not penguin shaped. No, a Triceratops was probably not bright pink and purple all over, and no, Brachiosaurus could never have had a trunk. These are things we absolutely can and do know.
Palaeontology is a science, and treating it like some experiment in imagination just harms an already misunderstood and looked-down-on field. Especially when our science is so often talked over or ignored by people who want to make animals "cool" or "scary" or "retro". Please. Understand the intricacies here and stop acting like our study means nothing.
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Wednesday 2/6/21 - Your Pterosaurs Are Wrong
Mark Witton, Cimoliopterus
A few weeks ago, I made a post talking about dinosaurs, and some common mistakes that artists make when reconstructing them. A lot of these issues bleed into how dinosaurs look in mainstream media, so I wanted to show what scientists know is the right way to do a dinosaur.
But dinosaurs weren't the only reptiles alive at the time, and many other ancient reptile groups also feature heavily in pop culture... and they're done just as dirty. Today I wanna talk about a group closely related to dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs, and the various way they're misreconstructed.
Firstly: Pterosaurs aren't Dinosaurs
Most people with at least a passing interest in dinosaurs understand that dinosaurs were not the only group of reptiles widespread in the Mesozoic. But the other day, my sister was approaching me for information she could link to a cheap bag of "dinosaur" toys. Among Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops, there was also other reptiles like Pteranodon and Elasmosaurus, and I was shocked to find that the fact that not all of these were dinosaurs was not common knowledge.
A typical cheap assortment of plastic "Dinosaur" toys
I might tackle extinct marine reptiles in the future, but for now, the basics to know is that most dinosaurs were not strong swimmers; plesiosaurs, icthyosaurs, and mososaurs were not dinosaurs. And the only flying dinosaurs had feathered wings; birds and their close extinct relatives. Pterosaurs, which fly with stretched membrane wings, are not dinosaurs.
Pterosaurs are closely related to dinosaurs, both groups share the very light bone structure that allowed flight to develop in each group. Ornithodira (bird-neck), is the name of the group containing the oldest ancestors of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and their descendants. But that's enough cladistics. Let's get to physical inaccuracies.
Bipedal vs Quadrupedal
The classic image of a man-shaped Pterosaur standing on its hind limbs like a vulture is very verrrry outdated. We now know that, like modern membrane-winged bats, pterosaurs walked on all fours on the ground. And they weren't clumsy either, some larger species may have hunted on the ground too.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Pteranodon (inaccurate)
Mark Witton, Thalassodromeus (accurate)
This quadrupedal stance helped pterosaurs take off with all four limbs, a much more powerful leap. Meaning that pterosaurs could reach greater sizes than any other flying animal in history. Another, minor quip, is that the fingers of the front limbs faced backwards when pterosaurs were grounded.
Wings were not pointed
Walking With Dinosaurs, Ornithocheirus (now inaccurate wings)
Julio Lacerda, Pteranodon (accurate wings)
When you draw a pterosaur it can be very easy to draw mishapen pointed triangles for the wings, but if you're going for a scientifically accurate depiction, the edges of a pterosaur wing were actually slightly rounded, and this helps reduce drag. Which is important in particular for gliding and soaring species.
Tails... were not Universal
The earliest ancestors of pterosaurs were likely a quadrupedal, possibly arboreal species, and would have definitely had a tail. But as pterosaurs diversified and got bigger, there was a trend toward a smaller tail.
Gabriel Ugueto, Articodactylus (a tailed Pterosaur)
Brian Engh, Nyctosaurus (a tailless Pterosaur)
The stereotypical long, arrow-headed tail was present in some species for sure, but the bigger crested species like Pterodactylus did not have tails.
Like many mainstream misrepresentation of dinosaurs, pterosaurs have long been shown off as serpent-like monsters with bare, scaled skin. I mentioned in the Your Dinosaurs Are Wrong post that even very primitive feathers are ancestral to all dinosaurs, and some palaeontologists think that this ancestral trait might extend to all of Ornithodira.
Most, if not all Pterosaurs, possessed hair-like filaments called Pycnofibers. In dinosaurs, this fuzz gave rise to feathers, but in pterosaurs, they developed into fluff that was superficially analogous to mammal fur. So rather than shrink wrapped scaly monsters, more accurate pterosaurs would've appeared fairly furry. But like dinosaurs, this would vary between genera.
Walking With Dinosaurs, Anurognathus (now inaccurate)
Andrey Atuchin, Anurognathus (accurate)
Thanks For Reading
These things I've mentioned today are the main glaring inaccuracies that pop up in PaleoMedia and mainstream SciFi in general. There's a couple other smaller things that I wouldve brought up, but tumblr only allows 10 images in one post.
The clade Pterosauria is also very varied, so smaller gripes, such as toothless jaws or wings without external fingers, may be inaccurate in some groups, but they are perfectly accurate in others (the toothless Quetzalocoatlus, and fingerless Nyctosaurus for example).
Cheers for the read, and if you want me to tackle other groups of ancient animals and their misrepresentation in media, let us know.
Also check out Dr Mark Witton on his twitter, and his blogspot. He is very skilled paleoartist, and I use a lot of his art in general, but he's also a palaeontologist who is very knowledgeable in Pterosaurs.
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