National Geographic

The Great Pterosaur Makeover

Nothing has ever flown through the air as magnificently as a giant pterosaur. Not that I’ve seen one to say for absolutely certain. The last of the great leathery-winged flyers died out with the non-avian dinosaurs, in the mass extinction that struck the planet 66 million years ago. Still, I can’t imagine anything more spectacular than one of these gangly, fuzzy reptiles – the largest being as tall as a giraffe with a wingspan over thirty three feet across – pole-vaulting into the air and rising into the Cretaceous sky. And in his new book Pterosaurs, paleontologist and artist Mark Witton pays tribute to these charismatic creatures by reconstructing and restoring them in exacting detail.

Pterosaurs suffer from a bit of an image problem. For one thing, many people confuse these awkward-looking creatures with dinosaurs. So far as we know now, as Witton covers in an early chapter, the variety of pterosaur forms – from tiny toothed flappers to beaked giants that were the largest animals ever to fly – composes the sister group to the Dinosauria. That is, pterosaurs were the closest cousins of the dinosaurs but not dinosaurs themselves. (Although experts continue to debate precisely where pterosaurs are rooted in life’s tree, made all the more complicated by the elusiveness of the very first pterosaurs in the fossil record.)

More than that, pterosaurs are popular enough to be familiar but don’t enjoy the same celebrity status of dinosaurs. That means that images of the Mesozoic gliders tend to lag behind the latest science. Often, famous genera like Pteranodon are still depicted as smooth-skinned cliff dwellers that skimmed the seas for fish, when discoveries have indicated that Pteranodon probably had a fuzzy body covering, could launch into the air from a standing start, and was incapable of scooping piscine meals from the surface waters. And that’s not to mention all the weird and wonderful pterosaur forms, many decked out with spectacular crests, that paleontologists have recently found.

Witton’s new tribute to pterosaurs gives these fantastic fossil creatures a much-needed makeover in two crucial ways. Not only does the book bring the science of pterosaurs up to date – at long last following-up other classics such as David Unwin’s The Pterosaurs and Peter Wellenhofer’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs – but Witton is a highly-skilled and imaginative artist who ably reconstructs the bones of the animals and brings them back to life in startling poses. Witton’s pterosaurs  are fantastical creatures deserving their own time in the spotlight.

Pterodaustro strikes a pose. Art by Mark Witton.

Pterodaustro strikes a pose. Art by Mark Witton.

Not only does Witton’s book contain a slew of highly-detailed skeletal diagrams that will help readers understand the strange skeletal construction of pterosaurs, but his imaginative illustrations of the living animals are true treasures. I’ve scarcely seen a more adorable prehistoric creature than Witton’s rendition of a baby Nemicolopterus crypticus, and the beginning of a chapter on a particular pterosaur group called the Thalassodromidae features one such crested creature skipping along the ground to nab a little dinosaur in apparent revenge for the discovery of a spinosaur tooth embedded in a pterosaur bone. Witton’s wry sense of humor often comes out in these depictions. An illustration of a gaggle of large pterosaurs soaring off panel near the end of the book reads “Realizing that the next chapter is about pterosaur extinction, a flock of the Maastrichtian Romanian pterosaur Hatzegopteryx thambena tries to fly back to an earlier part of the book to avoid the chop.” Marvelous.

Witton’s combination of style and substance makes Pterosaurs a true treasure and an absolute must for anyone curious about the extinct flyers. The book doesn’t shy away from technical terminology – Witton is exact in his use of pterosaur names, osteological landmarks, and other scientific details – but the book is written in a jovial, friendly style that I’d like to think has been influenced by Witton’s excellent work on his blog. Terms like “anurognathid” and “propatagia” will be unfamiliar, and maybe even uncomfortable, for casual readers, but Witton does a heroic job at explaining the terms he employs and guiding readers along without oversimplifying the text. This tone carries the reader from the history of pterosaur discoveries and what a pterosaur is, exactly, through a survey of all the known pterosaur groups and what we know about how they lived. If you’re truly invested in learning about pterosaurs, Witton’s book is a wealth of information that will be of great use to both specialists and curious general readers.

Dinosaurs sometimes ate pterosaurs, and big pterosaurs may have sometimes scooped up dinosaur babies. Art by Mark Witton.

Dinosaurs sometimes ate pterosaurs, and big pterosaurs may have sometimes scooped up dinosaur babies. Art by Mark Witton.

From physiology to feeding habits, Witton’s book covers most everything known about pterosaurs while also laying out conundrums and unknowns. There is still much to discover about these animals, especially since there are sadly none left to observe in life. Still, Witton parts on an optimistic note. “There are more pterosaur researchers now than at any other time in the last 228 years of pterosaurology, and new discoveries are being unearthed, described, and analyzed at record rates,” Witton writes. This groundswell will continue to update and alter our image of pterosaurs. For now, though, there is only one place I know of where pterosaur lives can be observed in some semblance of what they actually were, and that’s in the pages of Witton’s Pterosaurs.

[I should also note that Mark contributed two wonderful illustrations of dinosaurs to my first book, Written in Stone.]

Top Image: Art by Mark Witton, from Flickr.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Mark Witton
    June 4, 2013

    Brian, I could kiss you. This is the first review I’ve seen for my book, and is extremely kind. Thanks ever so much. I hope my other readers enjoy it as much as you did.

  2. Zach Miller
    June 4, 2013

    I am looking forward to this book more than you can know!

  3. John E. Riutta
    June 4, 2013

    Well done indeed Brian.

  4. Herman Diaz
    June 4, 2013

    “Pterodaustro strikes a pose. Art by Mark Witton.”

    I have a question about that: Wouldn’t pink be a more likely color scheme, given Pterodaustro’s probable diet, or is it more complicated than that? Many thanks in advance.

  5. Steviepinhead
    June 4, 2013

    Thanks, Brian!

    This one is definitely going onto my wish list!

  6. Mark Witton
    June 5, 2013

    “Wouldn’t pink be a more likely color scheme, given Pterodaustro’s probable diet, or is it more complicated than that?”

    We don’t know exactly what Pterodaustro ate. It’s clear that it was a filter feeder, but we don’t know if it’s diet consisted of carotenoid-heavy organisms which could give it a pink colour. Despite this, many images of this animal render it flamingo pink. The colour in the image above was a direct challenge to this trope.

  7. O.R. Pagan
    June 5, 2013

    Nice! This is more like it!

  8. Kelly Banco
    June 5, 2013

    Great post. I’ll be sure to check out the book! Any good fossils from Alberta?

  9. Matt Martinez
    June 5, 2013

    Mark,
    Pterosaurs looks wonderful. Im convinced that being the artist and the writer/scientist behind the book will prove a huge boon to you and us humble readers. My biggest concern when looking at artists “renderings” is how much science went into the picture and, more specifically, how happy the author was with the illustrators work. I know that in the past few decades, artists renderings have undergone a change for the better, but I’m always reticent to accept visuals provided with scientific works. Mr. Diaz’s comment concerning the diet/color scheme connection of Pterodaustro provides an excellent illustration (forgive the pun) of how the graphics are made better by the science which sits beside the creativity in your own mind, as opposed to whats lost in translation to a second party.

  10. Mike from Ottawa
    June 5, 2013

    I’m looking forward to Pterosaurs like a small child to Christmas. I loved the sample excerpt at Mark’s site, breezy but rigorous.

    BTW, someone should note that you can pre-order Pterosaurs at Amazon (US, UK and Canada at least) so it’ll be shipped on the release date.

  11. Gary Raham
    June 6, 2013

    Nice review! I will certainly have to check out the book.

  12. Matthew Haynes
    June 6, 2013

    I have been looking for a good treatment of pterosaurs for a long time, but Ihave never been able to find one besides little blurbs at the end of dinosaur books. I’m definitely going to have to check this out. Thanks

  13. Genevieve
    June 7, 2013

    Looking forward to this! I saw a film at AMNH and was blown away by the skeleton reconstructions that are helping update the pterosaur image. Very cool!

  14. AbrashTX
    June 7, 2013

    Just ordered Mark’s book from my local independent bookstore. Can’t wait!

  15. Matt Martyniuk
    June 13, 2013

    “Wouldn’t pink be a more likely color scheme, given Pterodaustro’s probable diet, or is it more complicated than that?”

    It’s a little more complicated. The ability to take carotenoids from food (as flamingos do) and incorporate them into the feathers as pigment seems to be restricted to the clade Neoaves. There are no anseriformes or galliformes, for example, that do this. Instead, bright colors in these more basal birds are achieved using structural color and iridescence. In fact, recent research shows that even carotenoid pigment is rather dull unless it is boosted by the structural color present in the complex microanatomy of feather barbules. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17148144

    The bottom line is that, while we don’t know the exact structure and microanatomy of pterosaur pycnofibres, they don’t seem to be as complex as feathers, even simple-branched feathers like down. So the color palette of pterosaur pycnofibres must have been very, very limited compared to modern birds or even proto-feathered dinosaurs, and more akin to the color palette achievable in mammal hair (melanin-produced blacks, grays, browns, blond-yellow and oranges). This may be one reason pycnofibres don’t seem to have been adapted for display, and why pterosaurs relied on extravagant bills and crests, which could show off a much brighter range of colors.

    tl;dr, pink Pterodaustro is very unlikely given what we know about pterosaur “plumage”.

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