Toothed pterosaur: Tiny fossil fragment reveals giant-but-ugly-truth

Oct 13, 2011
This is an image of a giant pterosaur, Coloborhynchus. Image courtesy of Mark Witton, University of Portsmouth: markwitton.com

New research from the Universities of Portsmouth and Leicester has identified a small fossil fragment at the Natural History Museum, London as being part of a giant pterosaur – setting a new upper limit for the size of winged and toothed animals.

Dr David Martill from the University of Portsmouth and Dr David Unwin from the University of Leicester examined the fossil - which consisted of the tip of a pterosaur snout that had been in the Museum collections since 1884.

Their identification of the fossil as being part of the world's largest toothed pterosaur has been published in Cretaceous Research.

Dr Unwin, from the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, said: "Our study showed that the fossil represented a huge individual with a wingspan that might have reached 7 metres. This is far larger than, for example, any modern bird, although some extinct birds may have reached 6 metres in wingspan.

"What this research shows is that some toothed reached truly spectacular sizes and, for now, it allows us to put a likely upper limit on that size – around 7 metres in wingspan."

Dr Martill, from the University of Portsmouth, added: "It's an ugly looking specimen, but with a bit of skill you can work out just exactly what it was. All we have is the tip of the upper jaws - bones called the premaxillae, and a broken tooth preserved in one socket.

"Although the crown of the tooth has broken off, its diameter is 13mm. This is huge for a pterosaur. Once you do the calculations you realise that the scrap in your hand is a very exciting discovery.

"The specimen was placed in the collections of London's by Sir Richard Owen, perhaps the world's greatest vertebrate palaeontologist. In his day, Owen reconstructed a giant New Zealand Moa from a single bone. We might never achieve Owen's calibre, but it is nice to think that we are following in his footsteps."

Pterosaurs are flying reptiles, famously seen in Jurassic Park, that lived in the Mesozoic Era alongside dinosaurs between 210 and 65 million years ago.

There are six or seven major groups of toothed pterosaurs, but in this study the researchers focused on just one: the ornithocheirids. Unlike other toothed groups, all of which were of relatively modest size (wingspans at most of 2 or 3 metres), they are known to have achieved very large and possibly even giant sizes with wingspans of 6 meters or more. Ornithocheirids were specialised fish-feeding pterosaurs that used a fiercesome set of teeth in the tips of the jaws, to grab their prey as they flew low and slow over the surface of the water.

An Ornithocheirus and Coloborhynchus have a 'who can stand the tallest' competition while two Anhanguera look a bit worried. Drawn to show ornithocheirid diversity. Image courtesy of Mark Witton, University of Portsmouth: markwitton.com

Dr Unwin said: "We found that, generally speaking, large ornithocheirids reached wingspans of 5 or 6 metres which was consistent with previous ideas about this group. However, we also came across one fossil, collected in the mid-19th century from a deposit in Cambridgeshire called the Cambridge Greensand that seemed to be unusually large.

"This fossil, now in the collections of the Natural History Museum, London, consisted of the tip of a pterosaur snout. The shape of the snout and the broken-off tooth that it contained allowed us to identify the new find as belonging to Coloborhynchus capito, a very rare ornithocheirid represented only by a few fossil fragments from the Cambridge Greensand. Calculating the original size of the animal based on just a fragment is difficult, but we were able to take advantage of some recent finds in Brazil of almost complete skeletons of ornithocheirids that are closely related to the Cambridge Greensand jaw fragment."

"Our study showed that the fossil did indeed represent a very large individual with a wingspan that might have reached 7 metres."

Significantly, though, this is still far short of the giant size achieved by some toothless pterosaurs. Several species of a group called azhdarchids achieved wingspans of around 10 metres.

The challenge for the researchers now is to try to understand why some groups, such as azhdarchids, reached these giant sizes, while toothed forms, such as the ornithocheirids, did not. Teeth are heavy, so part of the explanation may lie in weight reduction by losing these.

Dr Unwin said: "This research is important because it helps us to better understand patterns of evolution over millions of years, and in groups that are now extinct. At a more general level, it feeds into TV documentaries such as the current series 'Dinosaur Planet' on BBC1, ensuring that they have the 'ring of authenticity' that ensures successful reception, by experts and the lay public alike. Indeed, these programs are enormously popular, as viewing figures show, allowing us to comfort ourselves with the thought that the research we carry out is helping to satisfy the interests of a not insignificant portion of the viewing public.

"For Dave Martill and I, this was to some extent the 'bread and butter' stuff that we do everyday. But it's this slow piling up of data and, critically, its connection into our general understanding, that leads to the really big discoveries. Dave likes to refer to the fossil as the ugliest he ever studied, and I can see his point, but as I did my PhD on Cambridge Greensand pterosaurs they have a special place in my affections and, no matter how ugly, I still love them."

Explore further: Researchers create methylation maps of Neanderthals and Denisovans, compare them to modern humans

More information: Martill, D. M. and Unwin, D. M. 2011. The world's largest toothed pterosaur, NHMUK R481, an incomplete rostrum of Coloborhynchus capito (Seeley 1870) from the Cambridge Greensand of England. Cretaceous Research 10.1016/j.cretres.2011.09.003

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Nanobanano
1.4 / 5 (12) Oct 13, 2011
The specimen was placed in the collections of London's Natural History Museum by Sir Richard Owen, perhaps the world's greatest vertebrate palaeontologist. In his day, Owen reconstructed a giant New Zealand Moa from a single bone.


BS.

Zoologists can't even accurately identify the complete geneology of a modern day feral hog, even with DNA and entire corpse. Feral hogs are even compatible with different breeds, which differ by as much as 3 vertebra in the length of their spines.

This just goes to show a modern PROOF that a single bone or even as much as half a corpse is not enough to accurately recreate an organism.

Sure, you might be able to place reasonable upper and lower limits, but this modern example proves you can't even know how many vertebrae an animal fossil has, unless you actually have the whole spine and count them.

One fossil bone, or even an entire limb, to reconstruct an entire organism is just junk science.
slash
4.4 / 5 (8) Oct 13, 2011
Sir Owen was ridiculed in his day, but proved correct after subseqent discoveries. See http://en.wikiped...wiki/Moa

So much for junk science. Apparently it's your posting that is the junk here.
Nanobanano
1 / 5 (8) Oct 13, 2011
Sir Owen was ridiculed in his day, but proved correct after subseqent discoveries. See http://en.wikiped...wiki/Moa

So much for junk science. Apparently it's your posting that is the junk here.


You are talking about one specific case, in which he could just be damn lucky, because that shouldn't be a standard practice, as it's almost intirely guess work.

I'm talking about consistent basis, and I didn't make up my facts either.

What don't you check up on feral hogs vs domesticated swine, and see what I'm talking about.

if even the modern example shows uncertainty, how could you trust on any consistent basis such a practice with fossils of stuff that died out tens of millions of years ago?

Your trouble is you missed the whole point of what I was talking about, and then you think an exceptional, lucky case defends a baseless practice across the boards.
gmurphy
2.5 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2011
'Sir Owen' was a nasty bit of work, a "social experimenter with a penchant for sadism. Addicted to controversy and driven by arrogance and jealousy"
http://en.wikiped...is_peers Bill Brysons short history of nearly everything paints him in a very bad light.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.7 / 5 (6) Oct 13, 2011
Zoologists can't even accurately identify the complete geneology of a modern day feral hog, even with DNA and entire corpse. Feral hogs are even compatible with different breeds, which differ by as much as 3 vertebra in the length of their spines.
To the learned zoobiotomist, flying lizards = hairy hogs. I must see that chart.
Your trouble is you missed the whole point of what I was talking about, and then you think an exceptional, lucky case defends a baseless practice across the boards.
Your trouble is that for some reason you think you know what you are talking about when it is obvious that you dont.
Nanobanano
1.7 / 5 (7) Oct 13, 2011
Your trouble is that for some reason you think you know what you are talking about when it is obvious that you dont.


I know exactly what I'm talking about, idiot.

Your trouble is you don't know enough to know.

You can't know stuff like exactly how many vertebra, an unknown organism has, or exactly how big it's skull, leg, or toe are just from a single tooth or other bone.

If you're cross referencing and comparing it with other existing skeletons, that's not the same thing.

I used the example of modern feral hogs to show what I was talking about, because it's something easy, but you're too much of an asshole to stop and think about what I was saying.

"comaion"

What letter(s), if any, are missing from that word, Ghost? Slash?

Guess what? There's more than one possibility! You lose!

Wow. I gave you at least 70% of the word, and you lose.

If you started with 1 bone from an entire organism, you have just a few percent.
Nanobanano
1 / 5 (6) Oct 13, 2011
Your belief that you can fill in 90 to 99 percent of the skeleton from just one bone is insanity.

You can't even do that absolutely when you have most of the data.

You don't even understand the concept of example and analogy, so how the hell could you understand what I was talking about?
Nanobanano
1 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2011
"comaion"

comPaNionS

comPaRiSon

ComPaSSion

close, but maybe it's:

comPaRTMENTALIZATion

See, I didn't even think of THAT one, until a few minutes ago.

See how much "information" could be missing from your first, inuitive guess or extrapolation?

Ergo, 1 bone equals a body is junk science.
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2011
@Nanobanano,

Here's what you are missing: those letters in "comaion" are printed on your screen in a certain particular font. If you saw some of those same letters, in EXACTLY THE SAME FONT, but in a BIGGER SIZE, do you:

1) Assume that the other missing letters would be similarly up-scaled

or

2) Assume you're seeing some new kind of font where some letters are larger than others, or are otherwise morphologically inconsistent

Which is the more likely scenario?

Even similar constructs (beaks, limbs, vertebrae) will have distinct patterns of differences between different genera. More closely related species will have correspondingly similar morphologies. That's just a by-product of how evolution works.

Your example with hogs is an outlier rather than the norm. To assume that the fossils represent a similar outlier is once again, a rather unlikely presupposition.

Yes, it's POSSIBLE you're right. But CHANCES ARE, you're not.
scidog
5 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2011
for those of you who don't understand how science works in this case i would suggest spending some time at SV-POW http://svpow.wordpress.com/
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2011
BS.
-Says the learned zoo-lobotanist in critiquing an article written by experts on a subject the good doctor has absolutely NO training or experience whatsoever.

In order to refute his critics he uses the standard lobotanist technique of juggling LETTERS. This of course is how all great paleontologists make their discoveries. And lobotanists.

You're pathetic.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2011
Yes, it's POSSIBLE you're right. But CHANCES ARE, you're not.
The point is, he would not be right because he knew what he was doing. He would only be right by pure coincidence, and would not be able to understand WHY he was right.

But it would not matter. QC does not care one way or the other. He only thinks it important to post whatever pops into his lobotanist head. And he posts 60 posts a day of this shit. This is insanity.
roboferret
not rated yet Oct 14, 2011
'Sir Owen' was a nasty bit of work, a "social experimenter with a penchant for sadism. Addicted to controversy and driven by arrogance and jealousy"
http://en.wikiped...is_peers Bill Brysons short history of nearly everything paints him in a very bad light.


Ad hominem. Einstein was mean to kittens*. The theory of relativity is therefore invalid.

*I made this up to illustrate a point.

RealScience
5 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2011
Easy, there, avoid the personal attacks.

Nano goes too far in saying that the article is BS and that reconstructing from one fossil is junk science. PinkElephant's analogy demonstrates why even a single bone gives a high probability of a good idea of the creatures size.

But Nano has a valid point that concluding so much from one fossil is far from solid. The article was careless - it should have said that this fossil 'was consistent with' a large individual with a 7-meter wing span, or 'was evidence for' such an individual.

Otto - Wasn't QC a 6000 year old earther? If Nano is QC, then Nano/QC has clearly had a major change in thinking.

Nano - you do post too much. The best of your posts are now actually good, but you still post a lot of 'that's not the way I see it so all the experts in the field must be wrong' stuff. The experts are not always right, but when you disagree the first thing is to check your own logic and math many times before posting. Just post your best 10%.
gwrede
not rated yet Oct 16, 2011
My problem is the uneven level of moderation here. Some days perfectly valid stuff gets rejected, other days juvenile drivel gets to fill our screens.

Shame on PhysOrg executives!

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