Tag Archives: Mesozoic

New evidence on the sizes of pterosaurs

The flying reptiles, pterosaurs, were an amazing successful group of prehistoric animals. They ranged from the Late Triassic through the end of the Cretaceous periods, a span of time of about 156 million years. That is over 2 times longer than the time since dinosaurs became extinct, and mammals have dominated the terrestrial landscape.

Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to achieve powered flight, followed later by the birds and bats. However, during their hay-day, pterosaurs achieved an incredible range of diversity in form and size, and occupied countless niches within the Mesozoic world.

Interestingly enough, the first pterosaur remains to come from North America were found in Kansas. Flying reptiles had been known from Europe, but during an 1870 collecting trip through the western territories, O. C. Marsh stopped off in Kansas. Near the end of the trip he spotted a long, slender bone weathering out of the chalk formation, and collected what he could before heading back to Yale on the train. He thought the bone looked like the finger bone of the pterodactyls from Europe, but this bone was much larger. He estimated the wing-span to be 20 feet. The next year, he traveled back to collect the rest of the animal in the Kansas formation, and found that in fact his estimate of its giant size was correct. He named this new animal Pteranodon.

Greg dusts the life-sized models of Pteranodon sternbergii in the Sternberg Museum of Natural History

Greg dusts the life-sized models of Pteranodon sternbergii in the Sternberg Museum of Natural History

As more and more flying reptiles have been found in the fossil record, as basic question about them has puzzled scientists—how well could they fly? Estimating the body mass is a fundamental part of this inquiry. We can look at modern birds and see the constraints that flight dictates for body mass at least today. How do the pterosaurs compare?

In a recent publication, the question of body mass in pterosaurs is addressed (Henderson 2010). In the most detailed study yet of pterosaur body mass, Henderson set out to explore this question and to compare the results to birds. He created a model of body mass based on modern birds by creating digital, three-dimensional models of their bodies. His model was corrected for differences in density from different areas of the body. For example, the wings will have a different average density than the trunk, where the volume of the lungs greatly impacts its overall density.

Using birds, he refined his model to accurately calculate their masses and centers of gravity. Then, he turned to the pterosaurs. What he found was very interesting. The pterosaurs in his study ranged from less than an ounce for Anurognathus to an astonishing 1,200 pounds in mass for Quetzalcoatlus (more on this in a moment).

The giant pterosaur Hatzegopteryx compared to a modern giraffe. Illustration by Mark Witton.

The giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus northropi compared to a modern giraffe. Illustration by Mark Witton.

Excluding the giant Quetzalcoatlus for a moment, the other heaviest pterosaurs were Pteranodon at 41 pounds and Tupuxuara at 50 pounds. The estimates for the ancient fliers are not too far off the masses of the largest modern flying bird the Great Bustard, at 35 pounds. So, we know that it is at least possible for an animal of that weight to get airborne on a regular basis.

So, what about the giant Quetzalcoatlus? This animal is known from fragmentary remains from Texas where it was first found in 1971. While mostly known from fragmentary remains it is estimated that it had a wing span of 37 feet or more. Earlier estimates of the weight of this animal vary widely from 141 – 608 pounds. Henderson points out that many of the body mass estimates of the past were influenced by engineering constraints calculated for an animal with this great wing span to be able to fly. The thinking being that an animal evolved from flying animals most likely flew.

But, in an interesting twist, Henderson’s estimate is twice as much as previous estimates, so he turns the issue around and suggests the heresy that maybe giants like Quetzalcoatlus (and I would add Hatzegopteryx by extension) did not fly. Instead, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that a formerly flying species secondarily adapted to a fully terrestrial life style, growing to dramatic size as a protection from predation or for other similar advantage. We certainly can find examples of that in the modern birds too, in the flightless ratites, the emus and ostriches.

No doubt this issue will continue to be explored (for an alternative view see The largest pterosaurs have not been grounded yet) . That is the fun of science—keep probing and answers, and more questions, reveal themselves.

Henderson, D. M. 2010. Pterosaur body mass estimates from three-dimensional mathematical slicing. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(3):768-785.

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In modern oceans, the very largest organisms specialize in filter feeding, or living on the very small plankton in the water. (Read more about the filter feeding niche). Up until now, it has appeared to researcher that during the Age of Dinosaurs, when the oceans were dominated by large, toothy reptiles, there were no marine animals specializing in the niche of large-bodied filter feeding, despite ample evidence that the oceans were rich in planktonic resources.

However, this niche was in fact filled during the Mesozoic as demonstrated in a recent paper in the journal Science (Friedman et al., 2010). Turns out that several species of fish did specialize in filter feeding, and they too grew quite large. Most of the specimens were already sitting in drawers in museums, having been misunderstood for many years, until Friedman and his colleagues re-evaluated them.

For example, one species has been known for over 100 years—having been named by E. D. Cope in 1873 as ‘Portheus’ gladius from a specimen collected from the Niobrara Chalk formation in western Kansas. The Niobrara Chalk was deposited during the Late Cretaceous period (see a geologic time scale). The species has a long and complex taxonomic history, mostly of interest to professionals, but it does clearly show that many scientists reviewed the fossil material and scratched their heads in wonder about this strange set of fossils.

Friedman and his colleagues have finally put the pieces together, and it fills in much about the history of life in the oceans. They have created a new genus in which to place the species, so now it is known as Bonnerichthys gladius. The genus was named for the Kansas fossil-collecting family that collected the most complete specimen found to date.

Bonnerichthys would have been about 20 to 25 feet in length with a huge, gaping mouth. You can see an artist’s reconstruction of Bonnerichthys at Oceans of Kansas. And you can listen to an interview with Matt Friedman at NPR.

This discovery opens up a whole new understanding of the paleoecology of the Mesozoic oceans, and shows that filter feeding was utilized for at least 100 million years longer as a major life strategy than previously recognized.

FRIEDMAN, M., K. SHIMADA, L. MARTIN, M. J. EVERHART, J. LISTON, A. MALTESE, AND M. TRIEBOLD. 2010. 100-million-year dynasty of giant planktivorous bony fishes in the Mesozoic seas. Science, 327:990-993.

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The large consume the small

It is an interesting paradox of the natural world that some of the largest species alive survive by eating some of the smallest species.

Consider the largest animal ever known to have existed. No, it is not a dinosaur, but an animal alive today, the blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus. This behemoth can grow to over 100 feet long and weigh 380,000 pounds. And yet, this animal does not eat large fish, but tiny planktonic animals, those that float in the water.

The blue whale belongs to the suborder of baleen whales, or mysticets, that all make their living by filter feeding plankton—sucking water into their mouths and trapping the small, floating plankton to swallow. The toothed whales, or odontocets, do eat larger prey.

There are several other large vertebrate groups that also specialize in eating the very small, and they too grow to very large proportions. For example, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest living fish at about 40 feet long and weighing in at 47,000 pounds. And then there is the second largest fish, the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), also a filter feeder. Giant rays also feed this way.

Whale shark, the world's largest living fish

Whale shark, the world's largest living fish

So clearly, you can get very big eating small things. However, there has been a bit of a mystery in the fossil record. There has been a general lack of known filter feeding animals from the fossil record during the Mesozoic, the time of dinosaurs; clearly, that was a period in Earth’s history when things could get very large. So, where were the filter feeders?

An important piece of this puzzle has just fallen into place. Just published in Science is a paper outlining new discoveries of filter feeding fishes from the Mesozoic, and it turns out that they too were large (Friedman et al., 2010).

The fossils were mostly already in the collections of museums, having been collected in both Europe and North America. However, they were not well understood until this team began to look at them in more detail, and recognized their filter feeding adaptations. The fossils reported belong to the extinct pachycormid family, and include the new genus Bonnerichthys, named for the Bonner family of Kansas.

And in keeping with a theme, the pachycormid family of fish included the largest bony fish known, Leedsichthys, reaching over 30 feet in length in the Jurassic of Europe.

Leedsichthys, the largest spcies of fossil fish

Leedsichthys, the largest spcies of fossil fish

This latest work shows that in fact there were a number of filter feeding fish through about the last 100 million years of the Mesozoic, filling this lucrative niche held in modern times by rays, sharks, and whales. Another mystery from the past is closer to being solved.

FRIEDMAN, M., K. SHIMADA, L. MARTIN, M. J. EVERHART, J. LISTON, A. MALTESE, AND M. TRIEBOLD. 2010. 100-million-year dynasty of giant planktivorous bony fishes in the Mesozoic seas. Science, 327:990-993.

Many other interesting facts can be found here at Boneblogger. Look around and enjoy.

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