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10th May, 2010

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Pterosaurs in the news again

Pterodactyl lovers (and who isn't one?) are yet again reveling in the announcement of a new discovery. As reported just a couple of weeks back on the website of Southern Methodist University, "A 95 million-year-old fossilized jaw discovered in Texas has been identified as a new genus and species of flying reptile, Aetodactylus halli". A scientific description of the new species by SMU earth scientist, Timothy Myers, was published in the January edition of the "Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology". The lower jawbone of the specimen was found in 2006 by an amateur hunter near a highway southwest of Dallas. The winged reptile with a nine foot wingspan used to soar over north eastern Texas - and maybe much further afield for all we can know - when much of what is now central USA was covered by a shallow sea, the Western Interior Sea, which split the continent in two.

Excitement over the find has been intensified by the fact that it had teeth. Of the thousands of pterosaur (pterodactyl) remains found in North America since the 1870s only two sport teeth. By contrast, toothed pterodactyl remains are much more common in Europe, China, and elsewhere. The lack of remains of toothed specimens in North America might mean they were a rarer breed than the commonly-found toothless wonders, but not necessarily. They may have lived in depositional environments where fossilization was rare.

Pterosaurs are not lucky products of an exploding singularity; they were envisaged in the mind of God long before they began their earthly sojourn, and He it was who worked out every minute detail of anatomy and physiology that made the bizarre form workable. And bizarre must surely be the best adjective to characterize these creatures. As Everhart describes them,

Compared to their heads and their wings, their bodies are almost absurdly small. One comparison provided [in 1914]. was that "with a body little larger than that of a cat, they had a span of wing span asserted in some cases to have reached 21 feet or more".

Since that was written, larger specimens have been found. While the smallest pterosaur was about the size of an American robin or English blackbird, the largest found so far had a wingspan up to 39 feet (12 meters). Pterosaurs were superbly designed for flight; they had membranous wings supported by the elongated fourth finger of each hand and stiffened upper bodies for supporting the large muscles that powered flight.

Painstaking studies, with the aid of hi-tech equipment, have steadily solved many long-term mysteries about their varied structures, functions, and lifestyles, but many questions remain, such as whether they were warm-blooded or cold-blooded. Also, although workers are confident they now know how the wings were held at rest they remain somewhat mystified as to the precise order of events when a flying beast came in for a landing. Although experts know that the North American pterosaurs ate fish, they don't know if they fed while on the wing or while sitting on the water. We know nothing of either their nesting habits or their social behavior. Many fossils have been found in deposits that formed underwater hundreds of miles from the nearest shore, which raises the question of whether they soared for long periods like albatrosses or whether they periodically undertook long migrations.

An outstanding feature of many pterosaurs was their head crest, described by David Unwin as "breathtaking both in their size and variety. ranging from pug-like prows on the tips of the jaws and half-moon crests on the top of the snout, to the blade-thin fins that spring from the crown of the head in Ludodactylus and Pteranodon, and not forgetting the extraordinary forked crest of Nycotsaurus". 2 He adds the telling insight that, "the Mesozoic skies must have been a sight to behold". The works of God's hands never cease to astound those who study them; what a tragedy that most students of His works fail to grasp just what it is they are looking at. But for those who make the connection between creation and the Creator, delving into His treasure chest of goodies provides a never-ending source of thrills and inspiration.

1 Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea, p. 194

2 The Pterosaurs from Deep Time, p. 104

Resting posture of two kinds of pterosaur as determined by paleontologists (Unwin, The Pterosaurs from Deep Time)


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