Sunday, January 10, 2010

Not Your Father's Pterodactyls

According to, unlike many other prehistoric beasts*, pterosaurs don't seem to get a fair representation on the big screen:
While dinosaurs of all kinds abound (Tyrannosaurs, Diplodocus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus and now Velociraptor seem to make it into every film), the only pterosaurs we ever see are Pteranodon and the occasional Rhamphorhynchus. To make matters worse (for me anyway) the reconstructions are often very poor and rely on outdated ideas about pterosaurs. One can hardly complain about the early films and books, but dinosaurs on the big screen especially have changed dramatically several times over the years reflecting the latest (well relatively recent) ideas in palaeontology, yet the pterosaurs stay the same. Pterosaur research has been no less intense that that on the dinosaurs and our ideas about how they lived have changed as we discover new fossils and new ways of analysing them, but we are left with tooth-y Pteranodons, ‘pterodactyls’, and 5 meter wing-span rhamphorhyncoids!
Paleontologist David Hone then goes on to take a look at pterosaurs in the movies, books and in the BBC TV series Primeval. While the going into such detail probably strikes some people as nit-picky, I think it's actually a great resource for people who see or read about such critters and want to know what the real facts are.

Hone sums up my own feelings about inaccuracies in science-in-fiction pretty well:
Believe it or not, I don’t mind too much about ‘dramatic license’ for fiction. My problem is when it is dressed up as scientific accuracy. 
And happily for geeks like me,  "not minding too much" isn't at all the same thing as "not interested in explaining what the science should be".  That way I get to enjoy the fiction and learn about the science too.

Check out Pterosaurs in Popular Culture and the related page Myths and Misconceptions about Pterosaur

* I almost called them dinosaurs, but now I know better.

(via Metafilter)

Image: "The Vultures Sing", by paleontologist and contributor Mark Witten on Flickr.  From the description . "A pair of Quetzalcoatlus nothropi raid the nest of Tyrannosaurus rex in what will eventually become the Hell Creek Formation of Montana in 65 million years time. The idea here is that the animal on the right is the more striking male, whilst the drab pterosaur behind him is a female."  Go read the whole description, which is a lot more like a blog post than an image caption. / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



  1. Oookay -- unexamined assumptions galore here. Reptiles and raptor/carrion birds show practically no sexual dimorphism, except that the females are larger in the raptor group (hence the name tercel for the males in falconry). Lastly, if dinosaurs not only nested (known) but also tended their young (possible but uncertain), it's unlikely that both parents would forage at the same time.

  2. If you follow the links you'll see that the hypothesis is that the depicted pterosaurs are more "stork-like generalists that made their living by picking up assorted invertebrates and vertebrates, terrestrial and aquatic" than raptors.

    It does seem that the image of the female and male foraging together is pretty much fantasy.

  3. Most aquatic birds (geese, swans, storks, egrets, herons) don't show sexual dimorphism either.

    My sentence about parents foraging may not have been clear -- I meant that if the parents of the prey took care of their offspring they wouldn't both be away from the nest at the same time. They would take turns guarding the eggs and hatchlingss. Several reptiles do that, including crocodiles.


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