Saturday, August 28, 2010

The unexpected, dreaded link between Flugsaurier 2010 and linen blazers

By jingo, I’ve just realised I’m worryingly close to being a yuppie. All the signs are there: I’m sitting in Costa coffee in Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quays, a trendy waterfront complex of designer stores and chain restaurants. There’s an enormous cappuccino steaming away alongside my laptop, an iPod pouring music into my ears and I’ve inadvertently dressed entirely in designer clothes. Crap: I’ve even got a linen blazer draped over the chair opposite. I’m a haircut and an IKEA catalogue away from a leading role in a J. J. Abrams production. When did this happen? What happened to the slightly-alternative left-liberal arty type that I used to be? When did I suddenly become so… so… faux professional? Terms like ‘incentivise’ and ‘core competencies’ could now pass my lips and no-one would bat an eyelid. I feel so… middle management.

Best get to the bottom of this while I finish this mighty caffeinated beverage. If I can identify when this young professionalism started creeping up on me, I may be able to do something about it. It certainly wasn’t last night. No, that wasn’t very professional behaviour at all. It wasn’t my holiday in China: it’s hard to look professional when climate and hiking conspire to make you sweat more than an excited, overweight trekkie at his first Star Trek convention. But wait: just before that, there was the 2010 Flugsaurier International Symposium on Pterosaurs, held in Beijing at the start of August. Hmm… dozens of pterosaur experts from all over the world presenting their latest research, specimen viewings, museum visits and field excursions to fossiliferous outcrops of the Jehol Group? Attending that would give any wannabe pterosaur researcher delusions of professionalism: that must be it. Let’s investigate further.

Shiny new things

Flugsaurier 2010 (the particularly handsome, well-designed logo of which greeted you at the start of the post) featured talks and posters from dozens of pterosaur experts on virtually every research avenue of our leathery-winged chums. The talks were excellent and, it must be said, there was a surprising sense of intellectual cohesion. Pterosaur researchers are renowned for holding quite polar views on numerous topics but, at Flugsaurier 2010, there was a good sense that we’re starting to sing from similar song sheets. We don’t have time to mention every talk and poster of the conference (39 abstracts were submitted in total), but notable highlights included conference organiser Lü Junchang’s overview of Chinese pterosaurs, a talk that served to remind us how much China has contributed to pterosaur research since the discovery of the first Chinese pterosaur material in 1935. Fellow Pterosaur.Net host Dave Hone presented a new specimen of the anurognathid Dendorhynchoides that – get this – has a relatively long tail. The length of the tail in this animal has been controversial since its description (Ji and Ji 1998; drawing of the holotype, above, from this publication) thanks to some fabrication in the caudal region by its discoverers (Unwin et al. 2000). However, it turns out that the relatively long tail of the holotype was only partially restored and Dendorhynchoides did, indeed, have a longish tail. Dave continued to point out that there’s a wealth of phylogenetic potential in tail length: we just have to figure out a way to code it in a meaningful way. (You can see Dave’s comments on the meeting, incidentally, at this post at the Musings)

Further new discoveries were presented by Fabio Dalla Vecchia with a new, as yet unnamed, Triassic pterosaur from northern Italy. The affinities of this animal aren’t yet clear, though it appears to have some Raeticodactylus-like features. My fellow University of Portsmouth pterosaur worker, PhD student Steve Vidovic, presented his work on pterosaur tooth microstructure and revealed an unusual tooth tissue, neither dentine, cementum or enamel, comprising much of the external surface of pterosaur teeth. A movement is underway amongst certain pterosaur workers to christen this the ‘Vidovic Layer’ in a special avant-garde dancing and fireworks ceremony: please drop us a line if you’ve chorus line or pyrotechnics experience.

Helmut ‘UV wizard’ Tischlinger once again dazzled audiences with a display of new Solnhofen pterosaur specimens that, under UV light, were seen to have ridiculously-proportioned headcrests and hitherto unseen details of wing membrane histology. Worryingly for pterosaur palaeoartists, the size of pterosaur headcrests seems to be increasingly difficult to predict based on skull osteology alone and we may be painting virtually all our pterosaurs with vastly undersize headgear. Sticking with Solnhofen-esque pterosaurs, it was personally gratifying to see Chris Bennett’s poster on the taxonomy of Cycnorhamphus state that the Painten Pelican, a strange, isolated skull from Solnhofen deposits, should be referred to Cycnorhamphus as predicted on these very pages. Chris went on further to suggest that there is only one valid species of Cycnorhamphus, C. suevicus.

Dirty fakes and dissolving trees

Perhaps the most dramatic taxonomic revelation, though, came with the presentation of further preparation work on Cearadactylus atrox (line drawing of the holotype, above, from Unwin 2002), a mostly-complete skull from the Brazilian Santana Formation with unusual dentition and jaw structure (Leonardii and Borgomanero 1983, 1985). Previous views of the partially prepared specimen showed a very ornithocheirid-like cranial region but bizarre, stepped jaw tips with large, somewhat procumbent fangs. Cearadactylus has been classically difficult to place and has been housed amongst ornithiocheiroids (e.g. Dalla Vecchia 1993; Kellner and Tomida 2000) and ctenochasmatoids (Unwin 2002). With additional prep, however, Juliana Sayão was able to reveal that an ornithocheirid affinity was correct and, moreover, all the unusual features of the jaw tip are faked. The stepped nature of the jaw tips arose from the anterior skull and mandible having been broken off and reattached upside-down, while the large fangs were fabricated by imaginative fossil collectors or dealers. Actually, fossil fakery was something of a running theme in the conference: along with the doctored Dendorhynchoides discussed above, several faked pterosaur fossils were seen on display in the museum in Chaoyang Bird Fossil National Geopark and, in the privacy of Dave Hone’s office, we were shown a fantastic complete azhdarchoid-like pterosaur with an entirely fabricated head. The Cearadactylus fiasco is yet another demonstration that distinguishing genuinely unusual vertebrate fossils from those elaborated by dealers can be difficult. In my limited experience of dealing with such things, I reckon we have a good idea of what to expect in most fossil vertebrates so, if a feature looks totally, totally out-of-keeping with everything else we’ve ever seen, there’s the strong possibility that it’s been ‘improved’. Full preparation and investigation with things like UV light are probably the best way to detect potential fakeries but, even then, well-done fabrication can be difficult to detect.

In other talks, the phylogenetic influence of Darwinopterus was discussed by Dave Unwin. Dave plugged everyone’s favourite transitional pterosaur into two of the latest Big Pterosaur Phylogenies – that of Alex Kellner and his own - to see how it would affect tree topology. While Unwin’s own tree remained almost entirely consistent with previous incarnations, Alex’s didn’t fare quite so well and even well-supported groups like Pterodactyloidea collapsed into a polytomy with basal forms. Alex was, unfortunately, unavailable for comment due to being called back to Brazil early in the conference. Further cladistic acrobatics were performed by Chris Bennett with a test for homoplasy amongst predicted pterosaur relatives. Chirs found that characters of the hindlimb associated with cursoriality were likely to have developed convergently with other archosaurs, casting further mist over pterosaur origins.

Play that funky morphy, white boy
Pterosaur functional morphology was discussed at great length in several talks, and flight seemed to be on the topic of the moment. Colin Palmer told us of his physical and digital modelling of pterosaur wing sections and the aerodynamic effects felt across the wing. Mike Habib and I delivered back-to-back talks regarding the flight of giant pterosaurs: following several claims that large pterosaurs may have been flightless (Sato et al. 2009; Henderson 2010), we outlined several flaws in these predictions and that there’s actually very compelling evidence that even the largest pterosaurs could fly. Mike went on to say that, when they did, things like giant azhdarchids went like dynamite: in short, these were animals that could happily continent hop without working up a sweat. Mike and I have a paper accepted for publication on this that should see the light of day soon (at least, it will when I stop writing blog posts and get on with addressing our referee’s comments).

Mike returned to the stage to present his work with Jim Cunningham on water-launching pterosaurs. Pterosaur.Net readers will no-doubt be familiar with the concept of pterosaurian quadrupedal launches by now (see image, above, of Pteranodon mid-launch) and, by gum, it seems to work on water, too. I will say no more because a Mike and Jim have a paper on water launches in the works and, frankly, it’s so cool that I don’t want to steal any more of their thunder than I’ve already stolen. There will be some exceptional pictures being drawn of this stuff, though: hopefully Mike and Jim will get their work out soon.

Odds and ends
Two odds-and-sods presentations were also given: I presented new observations on giant azhdarchid remains that suggest they weren’t as big as we all thought and, changing key slightly half-way through my talk, then went on to discuss Quetzagate, or whatever you want to call the political and taxonomic debacle surrounding Quetzalcoatlus northropi (which, of course, you know all about because you’ve read this). Interestingly, this story was not as well known as I perceived it to be and, frankly, I’m wondering if it may warrant a more formal write up.

A less scandalous topic was covered by John Conway in the closing presentation where John discussed why pterosaur palaeoart – sorry – palaeontography – would benefit from a far more scientific approach. He’s dead right: pterosaurs are frequently portrayed with entirely incorrect proportions, muscle construction and unlikely colour schemes. Unfortunately, I’m amongst the guilty on this but I agree entirely with John: while we will remain shooting in the dark on most issues when reconstructing the life appearance of extinct animals, there are definitely some parts we can be ‘correct’ about (such as size and proportions) and others where we can at least aim for a likely ballpark (colour, behaviour). You can see the Anhanguera artwork that John used as his case study above, and further discussion of these points will feature, at some point, in these halls.

Once we all stopped yammering on

As with Munich before it, a portion of the conference was dedicated to specimen viewing. The new scaphognathine Fenhuangopterus, material referred to Darwinopterus, the chaoyangopterid Shenzhoupterus and a cast of the most complete and articulated large pterosaur I’ve ever seen - Zhenyuanopterus (above, with Dave Hone's cranium for scale) – were on offer. Poster displays took place in the same room but, in a silly move, I got too excited with Shenzhoupterus and didn’t get a proper look at them all. D’oh.

Field trips to outcrops of the Tiaojishan, Juifotang and Yixian Formations followed our time in Beijing, along with visits to several museums with extensive collections of Jehol material. As usual, dinosaurs were given pride of place in these institutions but, happily, other aspects of the Jehol biota were also given plenty of breathing space too.

Steve Vidovic and myself also made trips to the IVPP and Beijing Museum of Natural History: whilst the specimens were nice (and the fossil mammals were pretty incredible), both museums were let down by their woeful, woeful models of prehistoric beasties (image, above, of Beijing MNH Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. No, this isn't a joke). Whilst these were kept to a minimum in the IVPP, the Beijing MNHM has dedicated room after room to these travesties and, walking through them, they gave off no sense of wonder or scientific credibility: they were, frankly, a waste of space and money. To a certain extent, the same could be said of the wobbly animatronic dinosaurs littering the Chaoyang Bird Fossil National Geopark, models that are already showing drastic wear and tear after only a few years of operation. They all reminded me of comments made by Matt Wedel years ago concerning museums trying to be theme parks: gee-whizz displays and wobbly mechanised dinosaurs often only cheapen what could be a far more educational and interesting experience if museum developers only trusted public intellect a little more. After all, museum goers are intelligent enough to be interested in museum collections for what they are, not just because it’s associated with a squeaky Tyrannosaurus model that slowly moves it’s head from side-to-side and plays noises recorded from Jurassic Park. This is, of course, a whole issue in itself that I won’t elaborate on any further here, but museum directors take note: give your punters some credit!

And that was that
So, yes, that was Flugsaurier 2010. There are, of course, loads more things I could talk about and apologies to those who contributed and didn’t get a mention here. Thanks to the conference organisers, and particularly Lü Junchang, for putting the whole show together and keeping things running smoothly. Additional thanks go to all my friends and colleagues who made the experience such an enjoyable one, even if you did leave me with an inflated sense of professionalism. Now, with that coffee being long-finished (I’ve got the jittery hands of a high-end caffeine achiever to prove it) and designer threads suffocating my anti-commercialist, liberal attitudes, I must away to cleanse myself of yuppiedom before it's too late. If I'm not careful, I may become respectable. Holy Christmas: I may even grow up. Quick: where’s that linen jacket? I've got a date with that garment and some matches.

UPDATE: 29/08/10
Silly me: I forgot to mention that the conference abstracts are available for viewing here. Navigating your way around them, however, isn't terribly easy unless you can read Chinese. One final thing: Dave Hone had the adjacent image taken of Pterosaur.Net contributors in front of a very, very distant stretch of the Great Wall and, to put some faces to names, I thought I'd post it here. Plus, spreading our desperately handsome features as far as possible is basically a public service and bound to improve the moods of most people, so enjoy. (From left to right: John Conway, your host, Dave Hone, Mike Habib and Helmut Tischlinger)


  • Dalla Vecchia, F. M. 1993. Cearadactylus? ligabuei nov. sp., a new early Cretaceous (Aptian) pterosaur from Chapada do Araripe (Northeatern Brazil). Bollettino della Societá Paleontologica Italiana, 32, 401-409.
  • Henderson, D. M. 2010. Pterosaur body mass estimates from three-dimensional mathematical slicing. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30, 768-785.
  • Kellner, A. W. A. and Tomida., Y. 2000. Description of a new species of Anhangueridae (Pterodactyloidea) with comments on the pterosaur fauna from the Santana Formation (Aptian -Albian), Northeastern Brazil. National Science Museum, Tokyo, Monographs, 17, 1-135.
  • Ji, S. A. and Ji, Q. 1998. A new fossil pterosaur (Rhamphorhynchoidea) from Liaoning. Jiangsu Geology; 22, 199-206.
  • Leonardi, G. and Borgomanero, G. 1983. Cearadactylus atrox, nov. gen. nov. sp.; novo Pterosauria (Pterodactyloidea) da Chapada do Araripe, Ceará, Brasil. Congresso Brasileiro de Paleontologia, resumos, 17.
  • Leonardi, G. and Borgomanero, G. 1985. Cearadactylus atrox, nov. gen. nov. sp.; novo Pterosauria (Pterodactyloidea) da Chapada do Araripe, Ceará, Brasil. Coletânea de Trabalhos Paleontológicos, Série Geologica, Brasilia, 75-80.
  • Sato, K., Sakamoto, K., Watanuki, Y., Takahashi, A., Katsumata, N., Bost, C., and Weimerskirch, H. 2009. Scaling of soaring seabirds and implications for flight abilities of giant pterosaurs. PLoS ONE, 4, e5400.
  • Unwin, D. M. 2002. On the systematic relationships of Cearadactylus atrox, an enigmatic Early Cretaceous pterosaur from the Santana Formation of Brazil. Mitteilungen Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Geowissenschaftlichen, 5, 239-263.
  • Unwin, D. M., Lü, J. and Bakhurina, N. N. 2000. On the systematic and stratigraphic significance of pterosaurs from the Lower Cretaceous Yixian Formation (Jehol Group) of Liaoning, China. Mitteilungen aus dem Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Geowissenschaftliche Reihe, 3, 181-206.


  1. That Tyrannosaurus VS Velociraptor display... Hurtful.

  2. "Mighty caffeinated beverage"? Only in size. The espresso that is the base of a cappucino doesn't give you much caffeine. The heavy roasting destroys much of the caffeine and the very short brewing time means little of the caffeine in the beans gets into your coffee. If you want caffeine, you need a drip or plunger and lightly roasted beans. Between your faux coffee sophistication and your iPod and laptop you're not "Worryingly close" to being a yuppie, you are the epicentre of yuppie.

    However, your skill in explaining and drawing pterosaurs means not even the worst excesses of yuppidom can dim my admiration and envy.

  3. Thanks, Mike: I can now say I've learnt something today. As for the yuppie thing, I spent most of this afternoon in a bar listening to jazz. Despair, despair.

  4. Interesting write-up. Sounds like a fabulous meeting.

    BTW, professionalism is about what you produce, not your manner. Playful and excited by the thrill of learning about amazing animals isn't being unprofessional, just not being stuffy. Stuffy and professional ain't the same thing.

  5. Mark, I would add some more forgeries to that count. Also, Helmut has shown that UV light photography is not appropriate to detect all forgeries - he could not detect it on Archaeoraptor, for instance. The best way to detect forgeries is still seeing the specimens first hand. Preferably under a microscope. If you can't see proper bone, only some fragment-ish elements and paint, there you go...