Science this Week: Paleo Summer and the Original Big Tex

In the 1960s, if you were lucky enough to get the snack-sized Fritos in your lunchbox (as opposed to the more frugal handful from a regular-sized bag in a baggie), you were no doubt a collector of the free prizes tucked inside the Fritos six-pack box. Pencil-top erasers (the unfortunate Frito Bandito) were big, as well as various collector series. My husband’s favorite was the pterodactyl from the dinosaur series.

frito dinosUh-oh. Snack-food science fail.

A Pterodactyl Is Not a Dinosaur

This summer I visited my favorite pterosaur at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Lumped in with the dinosaurs and mistakenly identified as forerunners of birds and bats, pterosaurs struggle for a little paleo respect. Pterosaurs lived with dinosaurs and went extinct about the same time, but they were not dinosaurs.
Pterosaurs were winged reptiles and were the first flying vertebrates. The commonly used term “pterodactyl” is actually just one kind of pterosaur.

No flying animal has approached the size of the pterosaurs. Birds and bats took to the skies in the 66 million years since the pterosaurs went extinct but none have even come close to the largest of the pterosaurs.

Pterosaurs started small during the Triassic Period (230-200 million years ago). During the Jurassic and the Cretaceous (200 to 65 million years ago), enormous pterosaurs evolved.

The Original Big Tex

The largest found so far is Quetzalcoatlus northropi, with a wingspan of 10 meters (35 feet). Quetzalcoatlus is my favorite.
Quetzalcoatlus is a Texan, a native of Big Bend National Park. The largest animal ever to fly is from Texas. Of course he is.

Howdy, Folks!
Howdy, Folks!

The Houston Museum of Natural Science has amazing Quetzalcoatlus casts on display in their Hall of Paleontology. The Houston Museum is unique in that its paleo skeletons are not displayed in boring, lunch-line rows. Rather, the fossils and casts are in action: predators and prey – pursuing, eating, menacing.

This leads me to yet another reason to love Quetzalcoatlus: the display in the Houston Museum.

Usually, museums hang pterosaurs from the ceiling.

Houston displays a nesting pair on the ground.

Here’s why that’s cool:
Pterosaurs’ wings are made of skin stretched over the arm, hand, and fingers of the fore-limbs. The fourth finger (like our ring finger) was especially long. In Quetzalcoatlus, it was extremely long.

Although Quetzalcoatlus flew, they were too large for tree-dwelling. They nested on the ground.

How would you sit down if your ring finger was almost as long as your body? Think about it, then look at this photo of my recent visit with Quetzalcoatlus :

janet with quetzalcoatlus
The seated display of Quetzalcoatlus allows you to understand visually that her wings are fingers (with an extremely long ring finger) as she sits near her nest.

The Quetzalcoatlus in the background is standing on all fours (remember, he is a reptile). What would you look like, standing on all fours with a ring finger almost as long as your body? Look at the photo and see how he stands and what he does with that long fourth finger.
Fossilized footprints of pterosaurs indicate that they walked on all fours. The Houston display reinforces this in a way that a traditional hanging display cannot.

New This Summer! Pterosaurs in 3D!

Pterosaurs had very thin bones, making them lightweight and maximizing their strength-to-weight ratio. Thin bones means they do not fossilize very well. As a result, we have few good pterosaur skeletons and rarely have more than one example per species.

Until now.
Announced this summer (but found in 2005) was a spectacular find in northwestern China. The forty complete adult pterosaurs, multiple bones of others, and a clutch of five beautifully preserved eggs were found near an area of a large freshwater lake.
The newly identified species has been named Hamipterus tianshanensis. Hamipterus had a crest, pointy teeth, and a wingspan of more than 3.5 meters (11+ feet).

Until this find, we only had four pterosaur eggs – and they had all been flattened during fossilization. But the five found in China are the first eggs preserved in 3D. The eggs were pliable with a thin eggshell outside and a thick membrane inside – similar to the eggs of a modern snake.

This magnificent find also indicates that pterosaurs lived in large colonies, often near shorelines where they could eat fish and lay eggs in moist sand. Large pterosaurs would have had a hard time flying in wooded or mountainous terrain and are most often found in places that would have been open and near water.

There’s An App For That

Are you ready to go on a pterosaur hunt? There’s an app for that!

A new website links a huge pterosaur database with Google Earth. PteroTerra lets you see where in the world your favorite pterosaurs were found. Clink on a link and you’ll see a map, wingspan, and when it lived. Look at the big world map and you’ll see the distribution of pterosaur fossils around the world. Paleontologists can use this tool to map trends in pterosaur evolution.
Bookmark it on your smart phone, tablet, or computer now!

Here’s one more. Want something to do while waiting in life’s lines? Download the new Pterosaurs iPad App created by The American Museum of Natural History (free!). While you’re at it, download Pterosaurs: The Card Game (also from AMNH; also free for iPad).

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Hipster ScienceCat

Hipster ScienceCat

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