Up Close and Personal With the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Like many of us, I have long enjoyed looking at the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and other prehistoric animal models, created in 1854, still on show more than 160 years later, and providing a remarkable showcase of ancient life as it was imagined at the time. But I’ve only ever seen them from afar. How fantastic would it be to examine them up close? Well…

You’ve seen the Crystal Palace dinosaurs before (or images of them, anyway), but you might not have seen them up-close like this. Neither had I prior to this very special visit. Image: Darren Naish.

You’ve seen the Crystal Palace dinosaurs before (or images of them, anyway), but you might not have seen them up-close like this. Neither had I prior to this very special visit. Image: Darren Naish.

Way back in September 2018, I was fortunate enough to attend the Crystal Palace Dinosaur Days event, part of the Heritage Open Days weekend occurring across the UK on the weekend concerned. I gave a talk and also led a tour around the prehistoric animal models (focusing on the reptiles and amphibians alone). Adrian Lister (of mammoth and Megaloceros fame) led a tour too, Mark Witton gave a talk on ‘Palaeoart After Crystal Palace’, and much else happened besides. I also have to mention the 3D-printed models of the dinosaurs made by Perri Wheeler. How I would love for these to be commercially available: I’m sure they’d be a success. So, it was a great event; well done Ellinor Michel and everyone else involved in the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group (follow them on Twitter at @cpdinosaurs) for putting it together.

Perri Wheeler’s brilliant models of the three Crystal Palace dinosaurs (from back to front:  Megalosaurus ,  Hylaeosaurus ,  Iguanodon ). As a pathological collector of model dinosaurs, I sure would like to own a set - but I also sure would like for these models (or a set very similar to them) to be commercially available. Image: Darren Naish.

Perri Wheeler’s brilliant models of the three Crystal Palace dinosaurs (from back to front: Megalosaurus, Hylaeosaurus, Iguanodon). As a pathological collector of model dinosaurs, I sure would like to own a set - but I also sure would like for these models (or a set very similar to them) to be commercially available. Image: Darren Naish.

The real thrill, however, was not the talks nor the presence of the amazing and sometimes spectacularly good speakers but the fact that we were awarded special, up-close access to the prehistoric animal models. A dream come true. As you’ll know if you’ve visited Crystal Palace or read about it, the models are located on islands surrounded by a snaking waterway. In other words, they aren’t readily accessible. For the duration of Dinosaurs Days, however, a temporary bridge had been erected and – like Lord Roxton striding across a felled tree to Maple White Land – we made the crossing and stepped into a bygone era.

The amazing, enormous head of the  Mosasaurus . Many of the scales on the body were recently repaired as the entire skin across the body was in a poor state. More on the mosasaur below. Image: Darren Naish.

The amazing, enormous head of the Mosasaurus. Many of the scales on the body were recently repaired as the entire skin across the body was in a poor state. More on the mosasaur below. Image: Darren Naish.

Why erect a bridge to the islands in the first place? Both so that crucial landscaping and gardening can occur, and so that the models can be examined and evaluated for repair. They’re not in the best of shape, you see, and much work needs doing. Indeed, right now there’s a major push to get funding for a permanent bridge that will allow the continual access that’s required. This project only has a few days of fundraising left and there’s some way to go before the target is reached: go here and chip in if you can. You might have heard that the Mayor of London agreed to partly fund the project… as has legendary musician and song-writer Slash, since it turns out that he’s a big fan! I should add that Slash seems to be quite the fan of science in general, his twitter account revealing a definite tendency to use his powers for good.

The standing  Iguanodon  was given renovation and a new paint scheme within recent years. Unfortunately, further repair work is already required. Image: Darren Naish.

The standing Iguanodon was given renovation and a new paint scheme within recent years. Unfortunately, further repair work is already required. Image: Darren Naish.

The reason I’m writing this article is not just to bring attention to this push for funding, but also to discuss and illustrate various of the remarkable details I got to see thanks to this up-close encounter. Before I start, be sure to read (if you haven’t already) the August 2016 TetZoo ver 3 article on the Crystal Palace models. Thanks to the Dinosaur Days event, I should add that I’ve been able to get hold of the guide that Richard Owen wrote to accompany the exhibition, or the 2013 reprinting (Owen 2013) of this 1864 publication (Owen 1854), anyway. It provides at least some background information on why the animals look the way they do.

Head of the reclining  Iguanodon . Only a privileged few have seen the head from its left side. Image: Darren Naish.

Head of the reclining Iguanodon. Only a privileged few have seen the head from its left side. Image: Darren Naish.

Again, relatively few people will have seen the reclining  Iguanodon  from this side. It’s striking how natural, realistic and well-proportioned the model looks in this view - very much like a real animal. Image: Darren Naish.

Again, relatively few people will have seen the reclining Iguanodon from this side. It’s striking how natural, realistic and well-proportioned the model looks in this view - very much like a real animal. Image: Darren Naish.

Hylaeosaurus  was thought by Owen and Hawkins to be an iguana-like reptile with a “lofty serrated or jagged crest, extended along the middle of the back”, though many aspects of the reconstruction were noted as being “at present conjectural” (Owen 2013, p. 18). Image: Darren Naish.

Hylaeosaurus was thought by Owen and Hawkins to be an iguana-like reptile with a “lofty serrated or jagged crest, extended along the middle of the back”, though many aspects of the reconstruction were noted as being “at present conjectural” (Owen 2013, p. 18). Image: Darren Naish.

I’ll avoid repeating here the same points I made in my 2016 article but I will repeat my primary take-homes. Namely, that it’s disingenuous and naïve to criticise the models as outdated or as inaccurate, laughable follies, as is sometimes done. They have to be seen within the context of what was known at the time, there has to some acknowledgement of the fact that scientific knowledge has improved over time, and there should also be recognition of the fact that the models are more up-to-date than, and superior in technical accuracy and craftmanship to, the vast majority of modern efforts to portray prehistoric life. In the interests of correcting a mistake made in my 2016 article I should also point out that Crystal Palace is not in Sydenham as I stated, but in Penge. With that out of the way…

The pachydermal, vaguely bear-like  Megalosaurus  is actually a composite of information compiled from both Jurassic and Cretaceous theropods. The tall shoulder hump was included because Owen erroneously regarded the tall-spined  Altispinax  (previously  Becklespinax ) vertebrae as belonging to the shoulder region of  Megalosaurus  (Naish 2010). Image: Darren Naish.

The pachydermal, vaguely bear-like Megalosaurus is actually a composite of information compiled from both Jurassic and Cretaceous theropods. The tall shoulder hump was included because Owen erroneously regarded the tall-spined Altispinax (previously Becklespinax) vertebrae as belonging to the shoulder region of Megalosaurus (Naish 2010). Image: Darren Naish.

A lot of detail was added to the megalosaur’s face - some of it is superficially crocodylian-like. Note the ominous cracks at the tip of the nose and along the side of the lower jaw. Image: Darren Naish.

A lot of detail was added to the megalosaur’s face - some of it is superficially crocodylian-like. Note the ominous cracks at the tip of the nose and along the side of the lower jaw. Image: Darren Naish.

It was a real thrill to see the remarkably detailed appearance of the three Crystal Palace dinosaurs: Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus. Each has a very different skin texture, the Megalosaurus being the most unusual in that it doesn’t have the tile-like scales of the other two. Instead, it’s decorated with a crazy-paving-like covering. It’s not clear what Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (the designer and model-maker) was trying to achieve here since this is a rather non-reptilian look. Perhaps the aim was to give the animal a fissured skin texture vaguely like that of elephants.

View of the interior of the standing  Iguanodon , with and without flash. The light at the far end of the image is coming in through the  Iguanodon ’s mouth. Image: Darren Naish.

View of the interior of the standing Iguanodon, with and without flash. The light at the far end of the image is coming in through the Iguanodon’s mouth. Image: Darren Naish.

Holes on the undersides of the Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus mean that their insides can be inspected. As you can see from my photos, the models look like weird gabled roofs from the inside, numerous metal struts and poles helping to provide support. The hylaeosaur’s original head was removed since its weight was causing the model’s neck to break, and was replaced with a fibreglass copy. So, peer inside the hylaeosaur from beneath and you see the translucent interior of its face.

A view of the hylaeosaur’s interior! Image: Darren Naish.

A view of the hylaeosaur’s interior! Image: Darren Naish.

Cracks, fissures and damaged sections are visible everywhere, moss invades and covers parts of the hylaeosaur’s flanks (not good if you want the models to persist) and sections of the megalosaur’s nose look like they could fall off at any moment. Similar damage is present on some of the other models, their skin and scales flaking or cracking or looking to be in imminent danger of breaking or falling off. Some substantial (expensive) repair work has been done by the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, but much more is required.

Looking into the mouth of the  Mosasaurus . “The large pointed teeth on the jaws are very conspicuous; but, in addition to these, the gigantic reptile had teeth on a bone of the roof of the mouth (the pterygoid), like some of the modern lizards” (Owen 2013, p. 11). Image: Darren Naish.

Looking into the mouth of the Mosasaurus. “The large pointed teeth on the jaws are very conspicuous; but, in addition to these, the gigantic reptile had teeth on a bone of the roof of the mouth (the pterygoid), like some of the modern lizards” (Owen 2013, p. 11). Image: Darren Naish.

In my previous Crystal Palace article, I discussed the fact that the models reveal a great many complex anatomical details, some of them involving details only familiar to specialists. When you see the models up close, even more such details become apparent. I’m not sure I knew that the mosasaur is equipped with accurate palatal teeth, for example. Owen specifically referred to this feature in the guidebook (Owen 2013). The temnospondyls (‘labyrinthodonts’) have big palatal teeth as well, as they should.

Anterior view of one of the temnospondyls. Check out the accurate palatal teeth. To Owen and Hawkins, this animal was  Labyrinthodon salamandroides , a sort of composite based on temnospondyl bones and teeth, and inferences made from croc-line archosaur footprints, thought by Owen and those who followed his work to be made by  Labyrinthodon . Image: Darren Naish.

Anterior view of one of the temnospondyls. Check out the accurate palatal teeth. To Owen and Hawkins, this animal was Labyrinthodon salamandroides, a sort of composite based on temnospondyl bones and teeth, and inferences made from croc-line archosaur footprints, thought by Owen and those who followed his work to be made by Labyrinthodon. Image: Darren Naish.

Like the dinosaurs (except the megalosaur), the surviving pterosaurs are fantastically scaly (today, we think that pterosaurs were covered in a filamentous coat, except on their wings, the distal parts of their hindlimbs and their snouts and faces). Unfortunately, the pterosaur with folded wings has recently been damaged, its smashed snout and lower jaw meaning that you can see right inside its head. This reveals a complex internal ‘anatomy’: another reminder that the models weren’t all built to the same plan or in the same style, but that very different approaches were used for each.

The two large Crystal Palace pterosaurs represent the species known to Owen and Hawkins as  Pterodactylus cuvieri  (though the possibility that more than one species is represented is raised by Owen’s remarks in the accompanying guide). Unfortunately, one of the models is now badly broken. The two smaller pterosaur models are not currently on display and have had a really unfortunate history: they’ve been vandalised, broken and stolen several times. Image: Darren Naish.

The two large Crystal Palace pterosaurs represent the species known to Owen and Hawkins as Pterodactylus cuvieri (though the possibility that more than one species is represented is raised by Owen’s remarks in the accompanying guide). Unfortunately, one of the models is now badly broken. The two smaller pterosaur models are not currently on display and have had a really unfortunate history: they’ve been vandalised, broken and stolen several times. Image: Darren Naish.

Both big pterosaurs stand atop a small rocky ’cliff’. Like all the geological structures in the park, this is an installation specially created as part of the display. It looks, at first sight, to be made of nondescript grey rock. While looking at it, I began wondering about its specific composition, since we know that the other chunks of rocks in the park aren’t just random lumps of local geology, but transplanted sections of the specific geological unit the respective animal’s fossils come from.

As per usual, the model up-close - this is the  Pterodactylus cuvieri  posed with open wings - is a remarkable bit of craftmanship.  Pterodactylus cuvieri  was named for bones that have more recently been included within the genera  Ornithocheirus  and  Anhanguera , and have most recently been awarded the new name  Cimoliopterus . Image: Darren Naish.

As per usual, the model up-close - this is the Pterodactylus cuvieri posed with open wings - is a remarkable bit of craftmanship. Pterodactylus cuvieri was named for bones that have more recently been included within the genera Ornithocheirus and Anhanguera, and have most recently been awarded the new name Cimoliopterus. Image: Darren Naish.

And here’s a close-up of that detail. I absolutely adore the work here; check out all those individual scales. It seems remarkable now to think that Owen and Hawkins really imagined pterosaurs to look like this, but here’s the evidence. Image: Darren Naish.

And here’s a close-up of that detail. I absolutely adore the work here; check out all those individual scales. It seems remarkable now to think that Owen and Hawkins really imagined pterosaurs to look like this, but here’s the evidence. Image: Darren Naish.

What, then, are these pterosaurs really standing on? Mark Witton and I examined some freshly broken fragments of the cliff – the rock is chalk! This really shouldn’t have been a surprise given that the fossils these reconstructions are based on come from the English Chalk (Owen 2013), but it was great to see it confirmed. There’s even a line of dark flint nodules, just as there is in real chalk cliffs. These details are surely known to specialist researchers but were news to me.

Broken sections of the ‘pterosaur cliff’ reveal that we’re looking at chalk… which isn’t a surprise, and is exactly what we would expect, but here’s confirmation. You should be able to see a few of the dark, shiny flint nodules too. Image: Darren Naish.

Broken sections of the ‘pterosaur cliff’ reveal that we’re looking at chalk… which isn’t a surprise, and is exactly what we would expect, but here’s confirmation. You should be able to see a few of the dark, shiny flint nodules too. Image: Darren Naish.

Look – below – at the photo of the teleosaurs. Notice how the arrangement of scales and scutes is highly detailed, and how the animals have been given a scute arrangement that very much resembles that of living crocodylians. As it happens, the arrangement they’ve been given is dead wrong for teleosaurs but it is absolutely accurate for living crocodylians (where dorsal scute arrangement is – mostly – diagnostic to species level). What I’m saying is that I think that Hawkins looked at living Saltwater crocodiles Crocodylus porosus when designing these amazing models, since their dorsal scute pattern specifically matches this species (and, surprisingly, not gharials).

The two  Teleosaurus  of Crystal Palace. While compared by Owen with gharials, it’s interesting that the dorsal scute pattern they were given is very clearly based on living crocodiles. As per usual, look at the remarkable amount of well-rendered detail. Image: Darren Naish.

The two Teleosaurus of Crystal Palace. While compared by Owen with gharials, it’s interesting that the dorsal scute pattern they were given is very clearly based on living crocodiles. As per usual, look at the remarkable amount of well-rendered detail. Image: Darren Naish.

As usual, there’s stacks more I want to say, but time is up. I had such a great time seeing the models up close and I can’t wait to do it again. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Crystal Palace prehistoric animals are among the most scientifically and historically important renditions of ancient creatures ever created, and they’re amazing pieces of art, construction and craftmanship to boot. A full, thorough discussion of their ‘anatomy’, backstory, construction and history has, even today, never been published – McCarthy & Gilbert (1994) is the closest thing to it – and much remains to be compiled and discovered.

These models must be preserved for the future. On that note, don’t forget to pledge your support for the bridge project. Crystal Palace and its models will be covered here again at some point in the future, and various relevant projects will be discussed here in 2019 – watch this space!

CP-Sept-2018-Darren-and-Iguanodon-1000-px-tiny-Dec-2018-Darren-Naish-Tetrapod-Zoology.jpg
As should be obvious from these photos, the entire area has become somewhat overgrown recently, and much maintenance is needed. The   Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group   are doing what they can, but help is needed. Image: Darren Naish.

As should be obvious from these photos, the entire area has become somewhat overgrown recently, and much maintenance is needed. The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs group are doing what they can, but help is needed. Image: Darren Naish.

For other TetZoo articles on the Crystal Palace prehistoric animals and other relevant issues, see…

Refs - -

McCarthy, S. & Gilbert, M. 1994. Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World’s First Prehistoric Sculptures. Crystal Palace Foundation, London.

Naish, D. 2010. Pneumaticity, the early years: Wealden Supergroup dinosaurs and the hypothesis of saurischian pneumaticity. In Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, pp. 229-236.

Owen, R. 1854. Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World. Crystal Palace Library and Euston & Evans, London.

Owen, R. 2013. Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World. Euston Grove Press, London.

The Last Day of Dinosaurs in the Wild

On Sunday 2nd September 2018, the immersive, interactive time-travelling visitor attraction known as Dinosaurs in the Wild closed its doors for the last time. Yes, Dinosaurs in the Wild is now officially off-show, and if you didn’t get to see it before that fateful Sunday… where were you? I was determined to embark on one final tour, and of course I also needed to go to the grand send-off party and say those sad final goodbyes…

Preparing to embark on a last ever tour of Late Maastrichtian western North America. Chrononaut Jasmine Arden-Brown introduces us to the world of Chronotex. Image: Darren Naish.

Preparing to embark on a last ever tour of Late Maastrichtian western North America. Chrononaut Jasmine Arden-Brown introduces us to the world of Chronotex. Image: Darren Naish.

As discussed at Tet Zoo several times already (all at ver 3, I hasten to add), I was scientific advisor for this grand project and thus very much feel that the look, behaviour and biology of the Late Cretaceous animals brought to life for the experience was and is ‘mine’, the MAJOR disclaimers being (1) that a whole team of people actually did the work that resulted in the vision coming to fruition, and (2) any ideas that I have about extinct animal biology or appearance or whatever involve the proverbial standing on the shoulders of giants, and the work and discoveries of a great many other people.

As with any project of this size and scale, there's the long process whereby models and other props come together over time, and then there's the concept art, the explanatory diagrams, and so on. I've kept a record of as much of this stuff as I could. Image: Darren Naish.

As with any project of this size and scale, there's the long process whereby models and other props come together over time, and then there's the concept art, the explanatory diagrams, and so on. I've kept a record of as much of this stuff as I could. Image: Darren Naish.

With its fully – indeed, extensively – feathered dromaeosaurs, fuzzy-coated, muscular tyrannosaurs, terrestrial stalking azhdarchid pterosaurs (cough cough Witton & Naish 2008 cough cough), sleek, chunky mosasaurs, balloon-faced ankylosaurs and more (Conway et al. 2012), Dinosaurs in the Wild has – I really hope and feel – introduced a substantial chunk of the human public to a very up-to-date view of the Mesozoic world, and has thus gone some way towards undoing the damage of Jurassic World. No to the scaly, shit-brown, roaring monsters of the past, and yes to a more interesting, biologically plausible and often more surprising view of what these animals were like. Incidentally, Colin Trevorrow visited Dinosaurs in the Wild within the last few weeks, spoke to our associate live action director Cameron Wenn, and said really positive things (Colin and I spoke briefly over twitter).

Here are two of the (normally nocturnal) Dinosaurs in the Wild animals seen in full illumination. At left, the metatherian mammal  Didelphodon ; at right, the small dromaeosaur  Acheroraptor  (it never stays still for long, hence the motion blur). Image: Darren Naish.

Here are two of the (normally nocturnal) Dinosaurs in the Wild animals seen in full illumination. At left, the metatherian mammal Didelphodon; at right, the small dromaeosaur Acheroraptor (it never stays still for long, hence the motion blur). Image: Darren Naish.

And did Dinosaurs in the Wild have an impact on the public? I don’t know if I’m allowed to release all the figures, but I will say that many thousands of people attended the experience during its 13 or so months of operation at Birmingham, Manchester and London. Our amazing actors and other staff all became worthy ambassadors of ‘new look’ Mesozoic animals and their biology, and the substantial amount of scientific content included in the show surely introduced the public to a great deal of information they haven’t seen or heard before. All results indicate that we certainly received the sort of feedback and accolade we hoped for: we scored really well as goes visitor feedback, indeed sufficiently well that Dinosaurs in the Wild can be regarded as a world class attraction. The palaeontologists and other scientists and experts who visited were all extraordinarily positive, and thanks indeed to those colleagues of mine who voiced their thoughts in public (Dean Lomax, Mark Witton, Albert Chen, Dave Hone, among others).

Our final goodbye party was a solemn, quiet affair. Obviously. Thanks, Mike. Image: Darren Naish.

Our final goodbye party was a solemn, quiet affair. Obviously. Thanks, Mike. Image: Darren Naish.

Our venues were all great – Manchester’s Event City was certainly quite the sight to behold – but were perhaps not as centrally placed as might be ideal, though there are all kinds of factors controlling where and how a given exhibit can be located.

A very dangerous box. Working in the Mesozoic is not all that easy. Image: Darren Naish.

A very dangerous box. Working in the Mesozoic is not all that easy. Image: Darren Naish.

Even now, and even after me writing that fairly substantial ‘behind the scenes’ article I published at Tet Zoo ver 3 in July 2018 (and here’s assuming that SciAm haven’t removed it due to an issue with image rights, ha ha ha), there’s a huge amount that could be said about the ‘making of’ this project. As some of you already know, the backstory to the world of Dinosaurs in the Wild is already written-up in an extensive document that we took to referring to as The Bible, but despite efforts I’ve had to give up on plans to get it published. I will be talking about much of the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff at TetZooCon this year (BUY TICKETS HERE), however, and will be bringing The Bible along for those interested in seeing it.

There's so much to see through the windows that, even after multiple visits, I still haven't seen it all. In this sequence (seen while looking across the  Dakotaraptor  nesting colony), two female dromaeosaurs engage in a squabble. Image: Kerry Mulvihill.

There's so much to see through the windows that, even after multiple visits, I still haven't seen it all. In this sequence (seen while looking across the Dakotaraptor nesting colony), two female dromaeosaurs engage in a squabble. Image: Kerry Mulvihill.

Huge thanks to everyone at the event last night, and to everyone who made Dinosaurs in the Wild the success it was. Special thanks to producers Jill Bryant and Bob Deere, creative director Tim Haines, the team at Freeman Ryan, to live action directors Scott Faris and Cameron Wenn, to all the amazing people at Impossible, Milk VFX and Crawley Creatures, to every single one of our amazing actors, to our support staff, our sponsors and everyone else. And thanks also to Sam, Simon, Heather and the others who accompanied me on the same, final tour I took just yesterday.

The temporal field generator is always on. Image: Darren Naish.

The temporal field generator is always on. Image: Darren Naish.

Postcranial Palaeoneurology and the Lifestyles of Pterosaurs

Regular readers will know that I – with colleagues – publish fairly regularly on azhdarchoid pterosaurs, the very special pterosaur group that includes the short-faced tapejarids, the sometimes gigantic, long-jawed azhdarchids and a few groups seemingly intermediate between these two. Azhdarchoids are quite obviously the best and most interesting of the pterosaurs. And back in 2013, I and colleagues published a description and analysis of a new species from the Early Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight known only from a three-dimensional pelvis and some associated vertebrae. We called it Vectidraco daisymorrisae, its name honouring Daisy Morris, the young woman who discovered it (Naish et al. 2013).

The  Vectidraco daisymorrisae  holotype (NHMUK PV R36621) in (A) left lateral, (B) right lateral, (C) dorsal and (D) ventral views, and - at right - shown in anatomical position as per the animal's presumed profile in life. Image: figures from  Naish  et al . (2013) .

The Vectidraco daisymorrisae holotype (NHMUK PV R36621) in (A) left lateral, (B) right lateral, (C) dorsal and (D) ventral views, and - at right - shown in anatomical position as per the animal's presumed profile in life. Image: figures from Naish et al. (2013).

Enough is known of Vectidraco for us to make some determination as goes what sort of pterosaur it is (it seems to be a tapejarid or tapejarid-like azhdarchoid), and we can also say interesting things as goes its size and degree of skeletal pneumatisation (Naish et al. 2013). It’s well preserved enough that quite a few other things can be done with it as well. Last year Rachel Frigot used it as a model in the determination of pelvic and hindlimb musculature (Frigot 2017). And, as part of her PhD work on pterosaur pneumaticity and anatomy, my colleague Liz Martin-Silverstone sought to do some neat science with it as well. This work has just been published (Martin-Silverstone et al. 2018), and that’s why we’re here today.

My friend and colleague Dr Liz Martin-Silverstone, at work in the field (at left, Liz is finding fossils in a river in Romania) and in a museum exhibition at right (Liz is standing next to an exhibition panel all about her work. Let's not talk about that weird silhouette at upper right...). Images: Darren Naish.

My friend and colleague Dr Liz Martin-Silverstone, at work in the field (at left, Liz is finding fossils in a river in Romania) and in a museum exhibition at right (Liz is standing next to an exhibition panel all about her work. Let's not talk about that weird silhouette at upper right...). Images: Darren Naish.

Much of Liz’s work has involved CT-scanning (you can read about her own adventures here on her blog) and the relationship between pneumatisation, mass and flight. Vectidraco is at the other end of the scale from many of the pterosaurs that Liz has worked on (it was a small pterosaur with a wingspan likely less than 1 m as an adult) and was readily available, so it seemed sensible to incorporate it into her work. We scanned the specimen at its home (the Natural History Museum, London), and compared the results with those obtained from other pterosaurs we had to hand: namely, the ornithocheirids* Anhanguera and Coloborhynchus. scanned variously at Stony Brook University Hospital (thanks to Pat O’Connor for that data) and at the µ-VIS (pronounced ‘mu-vis’) X-Ray Imaging Centre at the University of Southampton (Martin-Silverstone et al. 2018). And we got pretty good results.

* Ornithocheirids: the mostly marine, long-jawed, long-winged pterodactyloid pterosaur group named for Ornithocheirus from the 'middle' Cretaceous of the UK. The group names Anhangueria and Anhangueridae refer to the same group... views differ on which taxonomic system we should adopt.

Pelvic regions of the three pterosaurs included in our study, to scale: (A)  Vectidraco daisymorrisae  holotype NHMUK PV R36621, (B)  Anhanguera  specimen AMNH FARB 22555, (C)  Coloborhynchus robustus  specimen SMNK PAL 1133. Scale bar = 50 mm. Image: Martin-Silverstone et al. (2018).

Pelvic regions of the three pterosaurs included in our study, to scale: (A) Vectidraco daisymorrisae holotype NHMUK PV R36621, (B) Anhanguera specimen AMNH FARB 22555, (C) Coloborhynchus robustus specimen SMNK PAL 1133. Scale bar = 50 mm. Image: Martin-Silverstone et al. (2018).

The first interesting thing to note is that the work corrects, updates and augments various anatomical details I reported in the initial description of Vectidraco (Naish et al. 2013). Bony openings that I interpreted as pneumatic foramina turn out to be foramina for spinal nerves (properly termed intervertebral foramina), and convex transverse ridges present on the sides and undersides of some of the vertebrae are misidentified intervertebral junctions. Cool – it’s good to learn more. The identification of intervertebral foramina is not a big deal at all given that these structures are ubiquitous in tetrapods but it's worth bringing attention to them given that they’re virtually unmentioned elsewhere in the pterosaur literature.

The  Vectidraco  holotype is one of those wonderful specimens that preserves a great many neat little anatomical details - look at these various pneumatic cavities on the T-shaped post-acetabular process on the posterior part of the ilium. Waitaminute.... aren't  all the specimens  like this? Image: Darren Naish.

The Vectidraco holotype is one of those wonderful specimens that preserves a great many neat little anatomical details - look at these various pneumatic cavities on the T-shaped post-acetabular process on the posterior part of the ilium. Waitaminute.... aren't all the specimens like this? Image: Darren Naish.

And if you’re wondering why I and my colleagues didn’t CT-scan the specimen the first time around and get this stuff correct on our first, 2013 attempt, it’s because CT-scanning requires money and virtually everything I do has been, and is, unfunded.

Anyway… what else could we do with the CT-scan data? Well…

During the late 1980s and 90s, Emily Giffin (later Emily Buchholtz) published several papers in which she used data from the size of the neural canal in the vertebrae of fossil tetrapods to make inferences about nerve size, the size then serving as a proxy for degree of innervation, this then serving as a guide to things like limb function and posture (Giffin 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995a, b). Her studies looked variously at non-bird theropods, extinct crocodylians and fossil pinnipeds, and she reported encouraging results. Non-bird theropods with large hands, to take one example, possessed neural canals in the corresponding part of the spine that were proportionally large, and hence suggestive of the well-developed nervous anatomy we would expect for animals that regularly used their hands in grabbing, piercing and tearing (Giffin 1995a). Her work has inspired other researchers to use the same (or similar) techniques on plesiosaurs and fossil raptors (again, here’s your helpful reminder that I will only ever use this term in the correct fashion. It applies to hawks, eagles and falcons and has done since the 1800s at least).

In a series of really interesting papers, Emily Giffin linked neural canal size with form and function in diverse tetrapods. This graph (from Giffin 1995b) shows how birds flying and flightless differ as goes the position of the largest parts of their spinal cords. The ostrich ( Struthio ) lacks a large spinal cord section in the anterior (brachial) part of its spinal column. Image: Giffin (1995b).

In a series of really interesting papers, Emily Giffin linked neural canal size with form and function in diverse tetrapods. This graph (from Giffin 1995b) shows how birds flying and flightless differ as goes the position of the largest parts of their spinal cords. The ostrich (Struthio) lacks a large spinal cord section in the anterior (brachial) part of its spinal column. Image: Giffin (1995b).

Several caveats make this technique far from fool-proof (Giffin 1995a). With these things in mind, we wondered if data from pterosaurs might be informative as goes ideas on their ecology and lifestyle. What we found is that Vectidraco has an unusually large neural canal in its sacral region compared to Anhanguera, indicating that it therefore had a proportionally large spinal cord (and lumbosacral plexus) in its lumbosacral region. Anhanguera and Coloborhynchus both had enlarged neural canals in the area corresponding to the brachial plexus, larger than the neural canals in their sacral regions. Vectidraco’s shoulder region is entirely unknown at the moment so we couldn't make any comparison here.

Neural canal cross-sectional area in our three pterosaur taxa: when normalised for centrum size,  Vectidraco  has a proportionally large neural canal. This composite image incorporates figures from Martin-Silverstone  et al . (2018) but was produced by the Palaeontological Association. Image: Martin-Silverstone  et al . (2018).

Neural canal cross-sectional area in our three pterosaur taxa: when normalised for centrum size, Vectidraco has a proportionally large neural canal. This composite image incorporates figures from Martin-Silverstone et al. (2018) but was produced by the Palaeontological Association. Image: Martin-Silverstone et al. (2018).

Taken together this suggests the following: evidence for a large brachial enlargement in ornithocheirids is consistent with the idea (based on their long, high-aspect wings and small hindlimbs) that they were highly aerial animals, while the large sacral neural canal in Vectidraco indicates that it was more proficient at terrestrial locomotion than Anhanguera. There are already indications from pelvic morphology, hindlimb size and so on that azhdarchoids and ornithocheirids were doing very different things in terms of ecology and behaviour (Witton & Naish 2008, 2015, Witton 2013, Naish & Witton 2017), so this matches what we might predict.

Vectidraco  could almost certainly fly well, as shown at left. But - like many, most or all azhdarchoids - it was likely a proficient and regular terrestrial walker as well, as shown at right. Image: Mark Witton (left), Darren Naish (right).

Vectidraco could almost certainly fly well, as shown at left. But - like many, most or all azhdarchoids - it was likely a proficient and regular terrestrial walker as well, as shown at right. Image: Mark Witton (left), Darren Naish (right).

So far so good. But the complication comes from the second ornithocheirid we looked at: Coloborhynchus. Oh, here I’ll avoid the whole mess concerning the taxonomy of Anhanguera and Coloborhynchus. All I’ll do for now is say that “it’s complicated” and promise that I’ll come back to it in the near future. Anyway… the Coloborhynchus specimen we analysed is not like our Anhanguera specimen as goes the proportional size of the neural canal in its lumbosacral region -- it lacks a distinct lumbosacral enlargement but is superficially Vectidraco-like in having a larger neural canal in the relevant region (Martin-Silverstone et al. 2018). This is an unexpected result. Does it mean that some ornithocheirids were far more terrestrially capable than others, this perhaps reflecting niche differentiation or some other form of variation? Or does it mean that some ornithocheirids were far more aerially specialised than others and that the default condition was to have a larger sacral neural canal? Or does it mean that there’s something else we haven’t accounted for? (example: maybe some of these pterosaurs had enlarged neural canals due to pneumatisation in the neural canal? Yes, air sacs dorsal to the spinal cord. This is a thing). I don’t think it means that Coloborhynchus-type pterosaurs were as terrestrially proficient as Vectidraco, nor that our ideas on said terrestrial proficiency in azhdarchoids like Vectidraco are bogus, given the fact that Vectidraco appears to have a lumbosacral enlargement while the ornithocheirids do not, and that azhdarchoids like Vectidraco possess weird features indicative of terrestrial specialisation (like the giant, T-shaped postacetabular process on the ilium) lacking in ornithocheirids. But it’s clear that more data and more work is needed, as usual with these sorts of things.

Behaviour speculatively inferred for the pterosaurs incorporated in our study. (A) A dedicated aerial lifestyle involving little terrestrial behaviour, as per  Anhanguera ; (B) reasonable terrestrial abilities in an animal otherwise very similar to its close, highly aerial relatives, as per  Coloborhynchus ; (C) proficient and regular terrestrial behaviour in an animal that routinely feeds and forages on the ground, as per  Vectidraco . Image: Darren Naish.

Behaviour speculatively inferred for the pterosaurs incorporated in our study. (A) A dedicated aerial lifestyle involving little terrestrial behaviour, as per Anhanguera; (B) reasonable terrestrial abilities in an animal otherwise very similar to its close, highly aerial relatives, as per Coloborhynchus; (C) proficient and regular terrestrial behaviour in an animal that routinely feeds and forages on the ground, as per Vectidraco. Image: Darren Naish.

It’s also important to remember that this data – this work as a whole – is complimentary to other studies. CT scan data on neural canal size provides nothing like a ‘Rosetta Stone’ on behaviour or lifestyle, and the more we learn about anatomy and form-function correlation, the less likely it seems that such things exist. We already have lots of reasons for thinking that azhdarchoids were better adapted for terrestriality and life in cluttered, inland settings than were many other pterosaurs, and likewise there are excellent reasons for thinking that ornithocheirids were aerial specialists and something like frigatebirds as goes ecology and lifestyle (though seemingly capable of swimming and perhaps diving, in contrast to the more piratical frigatebirds). So, this work is part of the dataset, part of the puzzle. And this is effectively an opening foray in this most intriguing area.

That’s where we’ll end for now. More on pterosaurs here soon!

My technical research and my writing here at the blog continues with your kind support via patreon. Many thanks to those who assist my projects. Please consider assisting if you can. The more independence I achieve, the more time I can spend producing the content you enjoy.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on pterosaurs, see...

Refs - -

Frigot, R. 2017. Pelvic musculature of Vectidraco daisymorrisae and consequences for pterosaur locomotion. In Hone, D. W. E., Witton, M. P. & Martill, D. M. (eds) New Perspectives on Pterosaur Palaeobiology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications Special Publications 455, 45-55.

Giffin, E. B. 1989. Gross spinal anatomy and limb function in living and fossil reptiles and birds. American Zoologist 29, 181A.

Giffin, E. B. 1990. Gross spinal anatomy and limb use in living and fossil reptiles. Paleobiology 16, 448-458.

Giffin, E. B. 1992. Functional implications of neural canal anatomy in recent and fossil marine carnivores. Journal of Morphology 214, 357-374.

Giffin, E. B. 1995a. Functional interpretation of spinal anatomy in living and fossil amniotes. In Thomason, J. J. (ed) Functional Morphology in Vertebrate Paleontology. Cambridge University Press, pp. 235-248.

Giffin, E. B. 1995b. Postcranial paleoneurology of the Diapsida. Journal of Zoology 235, 389-410.

Martin-Silverstone, E., Sykes, D. & Naish, D. 2018. Does postcranial palaeoneurology provide insight into pterosaur behaviour and lifestyle? New data from the azhdarchoid Vectidraco and the ornithocheirids Coloborhynchus and Anhanguera. Palaeontology 2018, 1-14. doi: 10.1111/pala/12390

Naish, D., Simpson, M. I. & Dyke, G. J. 2013. A new small-bodied azhdarchoid pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of England and its implications for pterosaur anatomy, diversity and phylogeny. PLoS ONE 8 (3): e58451.

Naish, D. & Witton, M. P. 2017. Neck biomechanics indicate that giant Transylvanian azhdarchid pterosaurs were short-necked arch predators. PeerJ 5: e2908.

Witton, M. P. 2013. Pterosaurs. Princeton University Press, Princeton & London.

Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE 3 (5): e2271.

Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2015. Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or “terrestrial stalkers”? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 60, 651-660.