Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A bit more about the AMNH Exhibit

Many thanks to Dave Hone for posting the great photos from Steve Cohen of the new AMNH Exhibit. I have been meaning to post about the exhibit over a month now, but April-May is the skeletomuscular course in the medical program at USC, so blogging has been on the back burner.

In any case, as Dave mentioned, I had a role in the new exhibit. In fact, I had a relatively substantial role. As full disclosure, I was a paid consultant on the exhibit (titled "Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs"). I worked with the staff there for a little over a year on the interactive flight simulations, and I did recorded interviews for use in the theater and iPad interactive displays. I also helped rather extensively with the script used for the theater presentation (which is mostly about flight). One thing that neither myself, nor Alex Kellner (the co-curator on the exhibit) were approached about were the promo images. I won't detail any politics on that front now, but some of you may be aware that there some issues that arose on that front. What I can say is that the animation and video folks were not involved in that process, either (and used entirely different models for their reconstructions), nor were the sculptors so far as I am aware. So the promo images seem to be a bit of an isolated entity.

In any case, the exhibit opened on April 5th, 2014. Here is the official website for the exhibit:

They ran a promo video here:

On April 1st there was a media preview event, with a panel composed of myself, Alex Kellner, Mark Norell and Michael Novacek. It was well attended, and yield quite a bit of press for the exhibit. Some of the popular articles can be found at:

As always, there is some variation in the quality of coverage, but overall I thought the writers did a good job of talking up the exhibit while hitting some of the interesting science involved. There will likely be more coming from Scientific American, as well, since I have chatted with them pretty extensively in the weeks following the opening (but more on that when the article(s) hit print).

Some things to look forward to in the exhibit (which stays at the AMNH through early January, at which point it will travel to other museums):

- Excellent specimens. Dave covered this already (see previous post) so I won't belabor it here. They have some awesome stuff, though (including the Dark Wing, which is on display outside Europe for the first time).

- Motion capture interactive animations that allow you to control launch, feeding, and flight in Pteranodon and Jeholopterus. The floating position of the Pteranodon was originally quite bird-like. It was updated using the floating paper by Hone and Henderson at my suggestion. The Pteranodon launch is a water launch and looks pretty wicked. The flight simulation includes basic physics like stall, L:D ratio transitions, and basic rate of climb estimates.

- A full-scale fleshed out reconstruction of Quetzalcoatlus northropi hanging from the ceiling just above reach, with a cutaway to show plausible flight muscle attachment. It's a great sculpture. Sadly, it came together just a little too soon to incorporate the updated proportions from my project with David Krentz. They did, however, feature David's 3D digital model on a sign near the sculpture showing how our reconstructions of Quetzalcoatlus have evolved over time.

- An amazing sculpture diorama (full size) of Tupuxuara - the models are by Jason Brougham, who is fantastic at paleo-reconstruction. The pair is shown feeding on fish in a traditional pluck-grab mode. As some know, Mark Witton and I both prefer an alternative ecology for these animals, but the sculptures are still magnificent (and to be fair, their feeding ecology is contentious - they can't just side with me every time). 

If you are in NYC, the exhibit is well worth a visit (the specimens alone make it worthwhile).



Monday, April 14, 2014

Additional pterosaurs of the AMNH

You may be aware that there is currently a major new pterosaur exhibition opening at the American Museum of Natural History, entitled Pterosaurs: flight in the age of the dinosaurs. In addition to their existing collection going on show, a number of key specimens have been borrowed from China and Brazil in particular and there is new art, animations and life models of specimens.

Somewhat inevitably the crew are involved in at least some ways. I know that Mark has had an input on the reconstructions, and that Mike has talked to them about take off and flight. I've also heard that both terrestrial stalking an azhdarchids (from Mark and Darren) and floating posture (my recent work with Don Henderson) also get a look in as part of the displays, so even very new research is in there.

Here we are blessed with a few photos from the exhibit courtesy of reader Steve Cohen who is a volunteer there. Steve has generously taken photos before from the museum and passed them on, and here are a few more for the collection. Featured are Wukongopterus, Tapejara, Thalassodromeus and some other wonderful Brazilian and U.S. specimens, and I know material from the Solnhofen (including the dark wing, outside of Germany for the first time), pterosaurs tracks and even the first described egg are also on show. At least a couple of pterosaur researchers are planning a visit given the diversity of material and I hope to join the pilgrimage to see some of this stuff in the flesh. My thanks to Steve for taking the time to take these and send them on.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A young intermediate pterosaur from Germany

A paper has just today been published describing this lovely specimen of what is rather obviously a) a juvenile pterosaur and b) something that is an intermediate between basal and derived pterosaurs. I've got some more photos and written up a brief bit here on it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Quad launching birds and relevance for pterosaurs

My recent G+ post has relevance to understanding pterosaurs. You can point your cursors here.

Bottom line is that quadrupedal launch is more common than it is typically given credit for. In fact, in terms of evolutionary origins, it has been more prevalent through time than bipedal launch.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cataloging the Carnegie

Pterodactyloid specimen with the impression of a throat pouch preserved
The number of pterosaur specimens now known from the Solnhofen is very impressive, certainly in the hundreds, although with a good number sitting in private hands, plenty of information is kinda known about, without necessarily being in the literature. However, while it is easy to bemoan the inaccessibility of material that isn’t in museums, far too much that is available is not always looked at, and a great case in point is the collection of Solnhofen material in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. In the early 1900s, the Carnegie was able to acquire a large collection of fossils from a Belgian collector the Baron de Bayet, and this included considerable amounts of Solnhofen fossils including a dozen pterosaurs. This is arguably the best collection outside of Europe, or even outside or Germany, and includes material in 3D, with soft tissues, stomach contents and other rather nice details. However, in the following hundred years a total of just 10 papers even mention these specimens, and some of these are very much references in passing. The only even vaguely detailed mentions come from Peter Wellnhofer’s works from the 1970s, which are not easy to access these days, often available only with poor images, don’t illustrate all the specimens, and came in many cases prior to additional preparation or other modifications. In short, this is a major collection of pterosaurs which needs to be revisited.

While visiting Mike Habib in Pittsburgh, we were hunting for things to do and realised this was an area ripe for reappraisal and set to revising and updating the material. Joining forces with Carnegie curator Matt Lamanna, we have now published a long paper (appropriately enough in the Annals of Carnegie Museum) detailing the material and its history. Naturally we have not done detailed descriptions of the anatomy of the pterosaurs at hand – there are very good descriptions of  things like Rhamphorhynchus and adding to that would merely fill space without really conveying much useful information, so instead we focused on what is unique about each specimen (taphonomy, condition of the material, what is and isn’t present) and specific history of the material in places. For completeness, we even briefly covered the casts in the collection, and the skeletal models made by Wellnhofer when he was in the museum on a sabbatical many years ago. This still resulted in a manuscript of over 15 000 words (despite there being only a handful of references) and 15 figures (at least one of each specimen), while Mike rather heroically took dozens of measurements for each specimen and then repeated the exercise for accuracy. The paper is in black and white, but colour versions of the key figures are online here alongside the data.

Some of these specimens turned out to be much more interesting and potentially important than previously realised and we were also able to correct some previous problems and update the taxonomy. Recent revisions especially to the pterodactyloids has left a lot of collections lagging in their taxonomy, but there was also a large animal that was listed as Rhamphorhynchus, despite obviously being a pterodactyloid, and indeed actually doesn’t even bear much resemblance to any currently known Solnhofen pterosaur and is rather cryptic. Two specimens had been mistakenly thought to be a plate and counterplate and had been combined even though they were quite different. After much head scratching we realised the issue was that there was a plate and counterplate there, but thanks to effectively a typo, the wrong pair had been put together.

Rhamphorhynchus specimen prepared free of the matrix

Two specimens of Rhamphorhynchus have undergone pretty dramatic changes in recent years, having been fully prepared free of their matrix. In one case, this results in a very odd flat specimen (which is apparently now very fragile – I actually didn’t see either of these, they were away when I was at the Carnegie) but that is at least cleaned up, but the other is a near complete skull preserved in 3D. Many readers will remember the paper on pterosaur neuroanatomy led by Larry Witmer that compared the brain structures of Anhanguera and Rhamphorhynchus and this specimen was responsible for the data on the latter. Three dimensional material from the Solnhofen is not common, so a skull that is in 3D and prepared to the point that it can be seen in all views is a real treasure and while it has been scanned, we’ve included a series of large photos of it to help reveal the structure.

Rhamphorhynchus skull in near 3D (if lacking teeth) prepared free of the matrix

Several specimens show traces of soft tissues including the wings, throat sacs and tail vanes. None are especially well preserved, but nor ore these features that common either (in part perhaps because like the leg feathers of Archaeopteryx, they may have been destroyed in the past to ‘better’ prepare specimens), so any additional information is useful. Finally, one of them does appear to have some fish teeth associated with the stomach. We this is has been missed before by other people and so is a novel find, and that extends the set of Rhamphorhynchus specimens with fish gut contents and firms up the evidence for piscivory as a major part of the diet of these animals.

Hopefully therefore this paper will clarify a few issues with the collection, bring forwards some of the developments and details not previously seen or recognised and provides a basis for future research. Also of course it marks the beginning of the sad death of Matt Lamanna’s career as a researcher of dinosaurs and the slow and painful descent into working on pterosaurs and consorting with the kinds of people who actually quite like them. For this Mike and I can only apologise, or cackle wildly with unabandonned joy, depending on who is reading at the time.

Hone, D.W.E., Habib, M.B. & Lamanna, M.C. 2013. An annotated and illustrated catalogue of Solnhofen (Upper Jurassic, Germany) pterosaur specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Annals of Carnegie Museum, 82: 165-191.Link to PDF here.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pterosaur Aerodynamics at GWU

+Lorena Barba over at George Washington University had her students do some fun summaries of pterosaur aerodynamics at the end of the Fall Semester. She is a professor in engineering who runs a course on animal flight (she is also the CFD guru behind the latest analysis of gliding snakes with J. Socha). These topics followed from a discussion that Lorena and I had after some interesting (and amusing) trolling on my Google+ stream. We identified four topics for her students to look into more: pterosaur launch, pterosaur weight estimates, pterosaur wings and flight capabilities, and Wagner Effects. The students wrote blog posts, which can be found here:

These students are all engineers, which adds a fun element because most were quite unfamiliar with pterosaur biology going into this project. There are some errors in the terminology and details of biology as a result, but it's quite good work, and brought some new things to light for me (especially the Wagner section). Enjoy!

Oh, and Happy New Year everyone...