Saturday, May 8, 2010

On the nature of palaeontology and throwing away years of training for a career in artistry. Oh, and something on pterosaurs, too.

Every now and then it occurs to me just how silly vertebrate palaeontology is. Consider the following: access to specimens is extremely competitive, but, despite this, a vast wealth of material remains undocumented; chances of scoring funding are less than 5 per cent; a high proportion of the work you perform is unpaid; there are all sorts of political considerations when reporting new finds or sharing information and, aside from ‘being nice to know’, there’s very little reason or rationale to investigate most extinct vertebrates – invertebrates and microfossils have utility in stratigraphy and hydrocarbon work, at least. All the same, people are falling over themselves to work in this profession, which means you have to be bristling with qualifications to even think of applying for an academic palaeo position. These qualifications don’t come cheaply: in Britain, you’re looking at three years of a relevant degree study, probably another year earning a Masters, then at least another three of PhD study. Tuition fees alone across this seven year period will set you back well over £20,000 and, while you’re studying, your earning power is significantly reduced: while all your school friends are off earning proper money in real jobs, even funded students will be just about be breaking even. As such, these seven years are not just spent acquiring the skills you need to be a palaeontologist: they're also seven years off the property ladder and seven years of not really putting any money into personal savings, and there’s little guarantee of a job at the end of it. What’s more, your fancy doctor’s title can become a burden as, while academic jobs become (theoretically) open to you, doors close on most menial jobs as, frankly, employers realise - probably rightly in many cases - that a PhD in a menial job will fly the nest as soon as they can.

Now, I’m not saying it’s all bad - vertebrate palaeontologists work hard at what they do because it brings enormous personal satisfaction and, ultimately, they’re being paid to do something they like – but the points made above are worth thinking about if you’re looking at a career in vert. palaeo. I stress that I'm genuinely not trying to put people off aspiring to palaeo jobs, but there are equally rewarding professions that are better paid, considerably more accessible and, at times when unemployment is looming on the horizon, considerably less stressful. I’m faced with the latter situation at the moment: thanks to greedy bankers around the world, British university budgets have been squeezed and, to slash costs, the University of Portsmouth is not renewing my contract post July. As such, I’m looking at joining the dole queue unless I can find a job before then and, without going into detail, pickings are slim at best. So slim, in fact, that I’ve been giving serious thought to leaving science and pursuing a career teaching art: I really enjoy teaching and, at times, I do wonder what I’m doing in science anyway. My dress sense, working methods and hobbies make me pretty unusual amongst the scientists I hang around with, but appear to be pretty typical of artier folks. But then, of course, I write something like the piece below and, by the end of it, I’m feeling pretty scientific. Maybe I should perform a cladistic analysis on interests and character traits and, plotting myself onto the tree, follow the career picked out for me in the consensus analysis. Until I do that, though, exactly where I should put myself professionally is a mystery, and one I’m quite keen to get to the bottom of.

The bit where I start talking about pterosaurs
Thankfully, I’m not alone in not being sure where I fit. An unusual pterosaur skull, nicknamed the Painten Pelican, has caused a lot of discussion amongst pterosaur palaeontologists because it is, superficially at least, so danged weird (see image, above). The specimen comprised a complete skull, mandible and cervical vertebra and, if you’re around in Southern Germany, you can see it for yourself: it’s on display in the Solnhofen Museum. A cast and UV photographs of the specimen were making quite a buzz at the 2007 Flugsaurier Meeting, and, apparently, the specimen is very slowly being written up. The Pelican has been mentioned in an abstract by Tischlinger and Frey (2007) but, this aside, it’s not been mentioned in the literature at all. This abstract describes the specimen as ‘a recently discovered skull of a very large azhdarchoid pterosaur from the locality Painten (Upper Kimmeridgian)’, but there are several reasons to think that this identification is wrong. In fact, amongst my colleagues at least, there seems to be some real confusion as to where this specimen should fit into pterosaur phylogeny. Thing is, I’m not sure we really need to be that confused about it, and here’s why.

The Painten Pelcian is, undeniably, something to get very excited about. The specimen is fantastically preserved, around 30 cm long and most notable for its strange jaws that are dorsally deflected and markedly divergent towards the jaw tip, forming a region where no direct occlusion of the bony jaw elements could occur. The jaw tips themselves, though, could occlude and bear a few (less than a dozen?) rounded, peg-like teeth in both the upper and lower jaws. The rest of the jaws are toothless, but a strange growth - presumably soft-tissue of some kind – appears to be present on the upper jaw and filled the gap made by the diverging jaws. It’s important to note how neat these features are: there’s no indication that they are pathological and, to date, there’s never been a pterosaur reported with such an odd looking jaw apparatus. The rest of the specimen shows a large fibrous crest along the mid-length of the skull, a nasoantorbital fenestra, an inverted-teardrop shaped orbit and a reclined occipital face with a prominent, rounded supraoccipital crest. The palate is prominently distended along for much of the jaw length and the jugal has an unusual posterior ventral deflection, extending ventrally so that the jaw articulation is in line with the base of the palatal surface. Sclerotic rings and hyoid apparatus are also preserved. The vertebra, so far as I can make out, is somewhat elongate, but other features are hard to discern from the photographs I have of the specimen.

So, it’s definitely a bit weird, definitely exciting, but what actually is it? Thanks to Darwinopterus, we can’t definitively say that the Painten Pelican is a pterodactyloid as we lack postcervical material that would show the only strong synapomorphies of this group (Lü et al. 2009). The skull is quite derived, though, and all basal monofenestratans found to date have pretty conservative skull morphology, so, until we see reason not to, it is probably safe to consider the Pelican as a pterodactyloid. The allocation of the Pelican to Azhdarchoidea by Tischlinger and Frey (2007) is, frankly, baffling, however: azhdarchoid skulls are readily identified by their edentuly and orbits positioned below the dorsal margin of their particularly large nasoantorbital fenestrae (see, for instance, Lü et al. 2008). As none of these features are seen in the Painten Pelican, it almost certainly is not an azhdarchoid. Elsewhere in Pterodactyloidea, the dental configuration is entirely opposite of what would be expected of a dsungaripteroid, ctenochasmatid or lonchodectid and the specimen lacks the elongate skull and derived dental characteristics of all ornithiocheiroids (e.g. Unwin 2003). It appears that we’re running out of places to put the Pelican then: is it something really, entirely new?

Probably not

While getting very excited about how kooky the Painten Pelican skull is, no-one seems to have noticed how favourably it compares with the Upper Jurassic French pterosaur Cycnorphamphus (= Gallodactylus; see Bennett 1996). This rarely discussed basal ctenochasmatoid, known from deposits in Canjuers and Solnhofen, contains two very similar species C. canjuerensis Fabre, 1974 (above, from Fabre 1974) and C. suevicus Quenstedt, 1855 (see photograph of skull and neck cast, below) and both bear dorsally sweeping upper jaws, kinked jugals, broad supraoccipital crests and elongate cervical vertebrae that are just like those of the Painten Pelican. What’s more, C. canjuerensis has a ventrally deflected mandible and robust cranial bones that are strikingly similar to the Painten specimen but, unfortunately, the holotype of this species also has broken jaw tips that prohibit comparisons of tooth morphology. Happily, C. suevicus shows that the dentition of at least one Cycnorhamphus species is confined to the jaw tip, though it does extend somewhat further back in the jawline than that of the Painten specimen. No Cycnorphamphus material has the strange structure on the upper jaw or large fibrous headcrest of the Pelcian, but this may reflect a imperfect preservation rather than their actual absence. The bottom line, though, is that the aspects of the Painten specimen that seem so odd are actually already known, almost identically so in fact, in another pterosaurs. Given that Cycnorhamphus and the Pelican stem from the very closely related depositional basins (see comment from Valentin, below), I think it’s very likely they’re one and the same. In fact, shoot: if the Painten Pelican isn’t just a complete skull of C. canjuerensis, I’ll eat my hat. The three corner job. With the feathers.

This could be another mystery solved, then, but I stress that this article is based on a brief period spent with a cast and numerous photographs of the Painten specimen, not the actual thing itself. I could, therefore, be very wrong and suggest waiting for the eventual technical documentation of this paper before getting too excited about what is said here. Still, it’s food for thought and, frankly, leaves me wishing that everything in life could be a bit more straightforward. Back to the work hunt, I guess.


  • Bennett, S. C. 1996. On the taxonomic status if Cycnorhamphus and Gallodactylus (Pterosauria: Pterodactyloidea). Journal of Paleonotology, 70, 335-338.
  • Fabre, J. 1976. Un noveau Pterodactylidae sur le gisement “Portlandian” de Canjurs (Var): Gallodactylus canjuersensis nov. gen., nov. sp. Comptes Rendus de l’Academie des Science, Paris, 279, 2011-2014.
  • Lü, J., Unwin, D. M., Xu, L., and Zhang, X. 2008. A new azhdarchoid pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China and its implications for pterosaur phylogeny and evolution. Naturwissenschaften, 95, 891-897.
  • Lü, J., Unwin, D. M., Jin, X., Liu, Y. and Ji, Q. 2009. Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277, 383-389.
  • Quenstedt, F. A. 1855. Über Pterodactylus suevicus im lithographischen Schiefer Wüttembergs. Tübingen. 52 pp.
  • Tischlinger, H. and Frey, E. 2007. “Solnhofen” pterosaurs with soft-part preservation: Soft-tissue crests and occipital cones, preservation of muscles and hairy structures. In: Hone, D. (ed.) Flugsaurier: The Wellnhofer pterosaur meeting, Munich, Abstract Volume, 32.


  1. "in Britain, you’re looking at three years of a relevant degree study, probably another year earning a Masters, then at least another three of PhD study"

    In the US, it takes 4-5 years to get a bachelor's, 2 years to get a Master's, and 4 for a PhD. What could be your seven years in school there is likely to be a decade or more here...

  2. Wow: I knew the PhD took longer in the US, but not the principle degree and masters courses, too. We only rival that if we go part-time on our postgraduate studies: you can extend the Masters over two years and the PhD over six under those conditions. You can add write-up years and things onto those as well, but most people manage to avoid such things: you only have to pay £1,000 or so for them, but they're still draws on time and money.

  3. 4 for a PhD is very quick in the US. BA takes 4 years full time in the US.

  4. It also takes 5 for a master and 4 for a PhD here in Belgium...

    Speaking of BSc, my "Bachelor thesis" or whatever it is called dealed with Solnhofen and Canjuers lithographic limestones.

    Canjuers and Solnhofen lithographic limestone deposits, though very similar in appearance are not from the same depositional area. Both were isolated, probably hyper-saline lagoons with the peculiar "plattenkalk" deposition that seems widespread during Upper Jurassic-Early Cretaceous. Also, Canjuers is very slightly younger than Solnhofen. But both took place within similar palaeoenvironment with little connections to Tethys and nearby isles. Fauna and flora are very similar, except for a few species.


  5. Thanks for that, Valentin. I thought the Solnhofen and Canjuers limestones were differnt, but both Cycnorhamphus specimens were listed as being from Solnhofen deposits by Bennett (1996). I'll modify the text accordingly.

  6. Everyone has their price, Mark, so I'll pay you 20 pounds to stay a scientist. How can you resist the lure of such lucre!

    It is sad that we live in a world that happily spends gazillions of dollars on equipment made only to kill people and blow up their stuff and yet folk exploring our world and thus, in part, what it is to be human, are scraping to get by.

    Mike from Ottawa

  7. £20? Do you think I can bought so cheaply? I'll do nothing for less than £25.

    Thanks for your support. I'm not alone, though: there are a lot of places that are letting people go. I get the impression that 2010 is not a good time to be palaeontologist.

  8. Mark,

    Unfortunately, the fact you're not alone only compounds the evil of it all.

    And £25? Done! You're a scientist forever now, young fella-me-lad. But you can doodle in your spare time. :-)

    Mike from Ottawa