Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Pterosaur Revolution?

Back on my Archosaur Musings, I've been talking about dinosaur discovery rates for the last day or two and it seemed worth musing for a few lines on the same phenomenon with regards to pterosaurs. New pterosaurs are being discovered at only about a quarter of the rate of new dinosaurs, though given that there are far fewer pterosaur researchers than there are for dinosaurs, and the overall greater rarity of pterosaurs, this in fact probably represents an overall relatively higher rate of pterosaur discovery even if the absolute numbers are lower. That is already quite significant to my pterosaur-centric mind and belies the pterosaur revolution we seem to be undergoing.

On a slightly cloudier note, the ongoing controversy and problematic taxonomy of a number of groups or genera does mean that it's likely that a number of these new taxa will be sunk back into obscurity. While obviously this is the fate of some taxa in all groups, to my eye the pterosaurs to tend to do a bit worse in this area that do say the dinosaurs. Still, when just a few years ago Dave Unwin surmised there were only around 110 valid pterosaur genera after nearly 200 years of research, the fact that we have been able to add around 20 more in the last three years alone is stunning. Next year might well provide a bumper harvest too with the next Flugsaurier volume due.

While they're never going to get the same attention as dinosaurs, the last decade for pterosaur research really does point to a quiet revolution. We have more active researchers now than ever before (and by a fair margin) and we seem to be drawing in more attention from other workers (that is, there are quite a few dinosaur and archosaur guys who dabble with pterosaurs when in the past they wouldn't have done so) and we're getting together regularly too and producing whole volumes of papers. We're seeing not just a huge increase in the numbers of new genera, but even entire new clades like the boreopterids and chaoyangopterids, unexpected late surviving toothed taxa, and of course Darwinopterus makes quite a difference. There are also major increases in our knowledge of older taxa - there are lots more anuroganthids and azhdarchids than a few years back, and other discoveries are adding massively to our knowledge. You'd struggle to find even a handful of really good specimens with soft tissues a decade ago but now we are positively blessed, and we now have 4 pterosaur eggs (and three of them with embryos) when before 2004 we had none.

At the risk of a little hyperbole, I really think we are in the midst of something special happening with pterosaurs and I genuinely think that in a few decades we will look back at the time between around 2000 and 2020 as the time when we really got to grips with these taxa and much of our knowledge settled into a familiar pattern. There will of course be more surprises and changes to our ideas, but this is very probably the beginning of a new age of pterosaur science and their renaissance (which dinosaurs had in the 80s and 90s) is begun.


  1. I agree. Ever since I began studying pterosaurs in 1997 the pace of discovery and also public interest has quickened to a remarkable degree.

  2. This bystander certainly sees these as the golden age of pterosaur discovery (as well as the golden age of dinos). In addition to the specimens, there's so much more information that can be extracted from them these days.

    Mike from Ottawa

    So, my thinks to you, Dave and all the other folk whose work brings these mazing animals to life to be gawped at by the likes of me.