Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pterosaur books to know and love, part 3: Pterosaur Trouble

Pterosaur Trouble cover image, by D. Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith, courtesy of Kids Can Press.
What's this? A review of a children's story book on Pterosaur.Net? Isn't this site about pterosaur science, with specimen numbers, refutable hypotheses and that sort of thing? Relax, dear reader: this review is about pterosaur science, and specifically how it can be presented well to even very young audiences without dumbing down, compromising illustration quality or making up nonsensical stories about the past.

Pterosaur Trouble, penned and illustrated by Daniel Loxton, with some illustrative assistance from Jim W. W. Smith, is a recently published work of 'palaeofiction' aimed at 4-7 year olds. It's the second in the Kids Can Press 'Tales of Prehistoric Life' series, following the 2011 Ankylosaur Attack. The short story sees a 10 m span Quetzalcoatlus halting its long journey across Late Cretaceous Canada in search of food, but runs into a vicious pack of Saurornitholestes instead. Along the way, we see various other fauna expected in a story set in the latest Cretaceous North America, including a couple of tyrannosaurs and a herd of Triceratops. As may be expected for a book aimed squarely at young children, the pages are kept largely free of text and only a single page, a final 'information page' on Quetzalcoatlus and Saurornitholestes, has a significant amount of text. The story is thus mostly told through its illustrations, which is what we'll focus on first.

Pterosaur Trouble spread, featuring Quetzalcoatlus and some noisy dinosaurs, by D. Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith, courtesy of Kids Can Press.
Virtual reality
The illustrations of Pterosaur Trouble are entirely rendered through CG animal models composited into photographed backgrounds (Loxton speaks at length about his illustration process in an interview over at the CSI blog). This sort of illustration has become commonplace in children's books on prehistoric life, and, it must be said, has generated some pretty awful bits of art. Sadly, there's probably more bad bits of CG palaeoart around than good ones, and this may create low expectations for Pterosaur Trouble's illustrations. Happily, Pterosaur Trouble dodges the problems of  obviously photoshopped backgrounds and plastic-looking, poorly composited creatures to create images which look pretty convincing (as you can see for yourself with the spreads throughout this blog). I'm not sure that they're 100% photorealistic, which is clearly the effect being sought, but they're pretty durned near. And not in that creepy, Polar Express sort of way, either. I think my 7 year old self would be pretty convinced that I was looking at some photographs. Special mention should go to the little details embedded into some scenes. Feathers float through the air from attacking Saurornitholestes, water splashes reveal the trajectories of the animals making them and reflections are seen in still water.

A chief issue with many pieces of CG palaeoart is inaccurate portrayal of the animals themselves. Pterosaur Trouble largely avoids this problem too, suggesting the mind of Darren Naish, who's listed as the scientific consultant for the book, has been put to good use. The animals look, more or less, pretty good and can be identified as the species they're meant to represent. The basic proportions and appearances of the animals are fairly close to the mark, and I get the feeling that real effort was made to render animals which would satisfy fully fledged palaeontologists as much as children. Again, there are lots of little details to appreciate. The Quetzalcoatlus beak has a chipped and rough appearance reminiscent of the beak of a marabou stork, the back of its neck has relatively long pycnofibres (as indicated by some specimens of Pterodactylus - see Frey and Martill 1998) and the primary feathers of the Sauronitholestes forelimb seem to attach to digit II (on correctly orientated hands, no less). The poses of the animals are also well chosen. There's a much appreciated deficit of roaring and hyperdynamic postures, and the points of view are sensibly placed so that we can clearly see the action, but the animals never look strange and distorted.

Pterosaur Trouble spread, showing Quetzalcoatlus in some Top Gun valley action, by D. Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith, courtesy of Kids Can Press.
As may be expected, I do have a few niggles. The faces and anterior neck regions of the star animals are devoid of fluff, a trope which I wish would politely clear off. Well known fossils of both dromaeosaurs and pterosaurs show that their necks and faces bore filamentous integuments, and we should reflect this in our reconstructions (Sharov 1971; Xu et al. 1999). The Saurornitholestes forelimbs could do with some more feather groups, and both star animals show some slight shrink wrapping on their heads. The uropatagium of the pterosaur attaches to the tail, which has never been found in any pterosaur specimen despite its prevalence in artistic reconstructions, and eye of the Quetzalcoatlus is set way too high in the skull (see my Quetzalcoatlus sp. skull reconstruction, below). Perhaps most glaringly, the wing finger of the pterosaur does not fold up against the body when the animal is grounded. These, and a few other nitpicks didn't really irk me that much however, probably because the overall illustration quality is pretty good and I enjoyed the other components of the book.

Skull reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus sp., based on Kellner and Langston (1996). Note the ventrally displaced orbit, well below the top half of the skull. From Witton (2013).
Text me
The images of Pterosaur Trouble are embellished with short passages of text on each page which provide details on the accompanying image. The text scores highly for avoiding anthropomorphising its animals too much, a major pitfall of much 'palaeofiction' . Instead, we have the actions of the animals being described more than their emotional states, often with neat bits of information sneaked into the same sentences. For instance, Quetzalocatlus is described as 'a giraffe-sized giant landing as a gently as a dragonfly' at one point. In one sentence we're given a sense of the size, mass and flight capabilities of this animal, and all in concise and evocative language that a 4 year-old could understand. The text is pretty on the ball scientifically, too. Pycnofibres, pterosaur 'fuzz', are described as 'hairlike fibers' rather than feathers or fur. The azhdarchid is said to eat 'anything that walked or slithered', which sounds like a reference to the terrestrial stalking hypothesis of Witton and Naish (2008) to me, and the animal vocalisations are the clicks, coos and chatters of an avian-like syrinx rather than the snarls, roars and bellows of a mammalian larynx. Given that many children's books on prehistoric life simply rehash information from other, sometimes much older children's books on the same topic, or else make mistaken claims that simply aren't true, it's refreshing to see Pterosaur Trouble presenting these new ideas to young audiences.

Pterosaur Trouble spread, showing Quetzalcoatlus apparently approaching Isla Nublar, by D. Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith, courtesy of Kids Can Press.
The story itself has one foot in the science camp, too. The overall premise was inspired by a Saurornitholestes tooth left in a large azhdarchid tibiotarsus, an indication that this dinosaur once ingested pterosaur meat (Currie and Jacobsen 1995). Whether the dromaeosaur actually attacked and killed the azhdarchid in that case is debatable, and I do agree with Currie and Jacobsen (1995) that the body size difference between the dinosaur and pterosaur suggests scavenging activities rather than predation. However, we're all aware that remarkable and unexpected feats of predation can occur in modern animals, such as lions attacking fully grown elephants and adult giraffes, so we can't rule out the occurrence of similar events in the Mesozoic. Happily, Pterosaur Trouble acknowledges this ambiguity on its final page along with a host of other factoids on its star animals. (Anyone interested in the logistics of dromaeosaur predation on pterosaurs should check out this post and its comments at Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings, which go into some detail on these issues.)

I couldn't feel like I've reviewed this book fairly without mentioning one particular part of its story, which may serve as an excellent case study as for how well put together this little book is. At one pivotal moment, the Quetzalcoatlus has to escape its dinosaur attackers, leading to it quad launching into the air while carrying a couple of dinosaurs. How cool is that? This one moment in the story, and its accompanying spread, is an awesome hat-trick of splendidness. Firstly, it reaffirms that Loxton has really been paying attention to the cutting edge of pterosaur research. Pterosaur quad launch is still a fairly fresh idea that, as a fully fledged hypothesis, was proposed as recently as 2008 (Habib 2008). Secondly, it features a simply terrific (and convincing) reconstruction of an azhdarchid mid-launch (below), with dromaeosaurs being cast from the launching pterosaur like feathery rodeo cowboys. Thirdly, it completely disregards the idea of pterosaur as weak, flimsy fliers, showing its star animal breaking free of its attackers and taking off despite being weighed down with unintended passengers. This is yet another nod to new research which indicates that giant azhdarchid humeri were extremely strong, and capable of launching animals far in excess of their estimated body weights (Witton and Habib 2010). As someone with a direct hand in this research, it's great to see these ideas being picked up here. Finally, the fact that a children's book is featuring quad launch makes me feel very warm inside, as a generation of people can now grow up with quad-launch in mind whenever they think of pterosaur takeoff. Wait, that's four things, which is one more than a hat-trick, right? Whatever: I don't do football.

Pterosaur Trouble spread, showing Quetzalcoatlus quad launching into awesomeness while shaking off some feathery vermin. Image by D. Loxton and Jim W. W. Smith, provided by M. Cornell

So, in sum...
While I can't claim any great expertise in children's books on prehistory, I've seen enough attempts to bring extinct species to popular audiences to know that I often find more things to dislike than praise. Because it uses up to date science, high quality illustrations and some clever text, Pterosaur Trouble is a fantastic little book that should greatly please and educate any little pterosaurologists you may know. I'll go so far as to say that Pterosaur Trouble is a terrific example of how to make a popular book on prehistoric animals both exciting and scientifically sound, an accolade that is all the more remarkable when you consider that a part of its targeted demographic is still learning to read. As a final recommendation, I could see myself reading a copy of this to my own kids, should I ever have them, without any muttering or wry comments. And if it can please a bitter old thing like me, then it must be doing something right.

If you're after a copy of Pterosaur Trouble, check out the Kids Can Press website, or log onto Amazon. The first book in the series, Ankylosaur Attack, is being published again by Franklin Watts in August, 2013 under ISBN: 9781445119427.


  • Currie, P. J. and Jacobsen, A. R. 1995. An azhdarchid pterosaur eaten by a velociraptorine theropod. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 32, 922-925.
  • Frey, E. and Martill, D. M. 1998. Soft tissue preservation in a specimen of Pterodactylus kochi (Wagner) from the Upper Jurassic of Germany. Neuhes Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlugen, 210, 421-441.
  • Habib, M.B. 2008. Comparative evidence for quadrupedal launch in pterosaurs. Zitteliana, B28, 161-168.
  • Kellner, A. W. A. and Langston, W. Jr. 1996. Cranial remains of Quetzalcoatlus (Pterosauria, Azhdarchidae) from Late Cretaceous sediments of Big Bend National Park. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 16, 222-231.
  • Sharov, A. G. 1971. [New flying Mesozoic reptiles from Kazahstan and Kirgizija]. Transactions of the Paleontological Institute, Academy of Sciences, USSR, 130, 104-113. [In Russian]
  • Witton, M. P. 2013. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. Princeton University Press, 336 pp. In press.
  • Witton, M. P. and Habib, M. B. 2010. On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness. PLoS ONE, 5, e13982.
  • Witton, M. P. and Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE, 3, e2271.
  • Xu, X., Wang, X. L., and Wu, X. C. 1999. A dromaeosaurid dinosaur with a filamentous integument from the Yixian Formation of China. Nature, 401, 262-266.