Friday, June 28, 2013

Mark P. Witton's "Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy"

Mark P. Witton is a paleontologist in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth. He has served as a technical consultant for Walking with Dinosaurs 3D and many other film and television productions. His illustrations of pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and other prehistoric creatures have appeared in numerous publications, including Science and newspapers around the world.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy, and reported the following:
From page 99:
So far as can be seen, the first pterosaurs share a suite of features that are documented, along with the rest of their anatomy, by Owen (1870), Wild (1978, 1984b), Padian (1983b), Unwin (1988b), and Dalla Vecchia (1998). They are generally small, with wingspans of 0.5 m in Preondactylus, 0.6 m in Peteinosaurus, and 1.3 m Dimorphodon. They do not have the outlandish proportions seen in other pterosaurs with heads, necks, and forelimbs that are large, but not so much to make their bodies and legs look tiny. Their skulls are rather deep and perforated with large fenestrae so that, despite their size (the skull of Dimorphodon is about 20 cm long), they were probably quite lightweight. The only known skull of Preondactylus is somewhat crushed and its exact shape cannot be determined, but it is often reconstructed with a rather shallow snout (e.g., Wellnhofer 1991a; Dalla Vecchia 1998). This may not be accurate however, as the length of the bony strut between its antorbital fenestra and nasal opening dictates that it must have had a deeper snout than is typically reconstructed (Fig. 10.3; Unwin 2003). The skulls of these pterosaurs are generally unornamented, but Dimorphodon does bear a slight keel along the front part of its lower jaw. Dimorphodon also possesses an external mandibular fenestra, an archosauriform trait retained from pterosaur ancestry that was lost in later pterosaurs (Nesbitt and Hone 2010). Sadly, the remains of other early pterosaurs are too poorly preserved determine if they bore the same feature.
OK, page 99 is a bad place to walk in. That text looks quite horrid in places, with nasty Latin words and lots of dry anatomical description. It’s not all like this. Honest.

Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy is a popular science book dedicated to pterosaurs, the extinct flying reptiles that shared the world with dinosaurs millions of years ago. Pterosaurs are awesome creatures. They were the first backboned animals to develop powered flight, comprise at least 130 funky looking species and, towards the end of their 160 million year evolutionary history, attained the proportions of giraffes while still being able to fly.

With accolades like that, it’s hard to write about pterosaurs in dry terms for long. Page 99 describes the anatomy of some of the oldest and most ‘primitive’ pterosaurs currently known, alongside a skeletal diagram and life restoration of one early species, Dimorphodon macronyx. The descriptive text here serves as a primer so we can discuss the locomotion, lifestyles and evolutionary significance of these animals in greater depth elsewhere, discussions of which comprise the majority of the text. Those ferocious-looking words won’t be a problem for readers this far in, either, as the language in Pterosaurs is as straightforward as possible with jargon minimised, but clearly explained when unavoidable. Pterosaurs was penned with enthusiasts of natural history and palaeontology in mind, not academics.

Pterosaurs does a lot more than just looking at specific pterosaur species however. All aspects of pterosaur palaeontology are touched on with introductory chapters covering pterosaur discovery and biology, their evolutionary origins, general anatomy, how they walked and flew, and the basics of their reproduction, growth and habits. Section two, including page 99, breaks pterosaurs up into 16 distinct groups and discusses the history of discovery, anatomy and lifestyles of each lineage. The final section looks at why pterosaurs met their demise 65 million years ago. The text is complemented with over 200 images of pterosaur fossils, numerous original paintings of pterosaurs in life and diagrams of their fossils and anatomy.

Over 500 pterosaur research papers are cited in the text and listed for extensive follow-up reading should readers want to take their knowledge further. My hope is that a number of readers will do just that because, if I’ve done my job right, this book will make pterosaurs as interesting for them as they are for me.
Learn more about the book and author at Mark P. Witton's website, blog, and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue