Classic pterosaurs, with the artist for scale.
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Art by Mark Witton.
Classic pterosaurs, with the artist for scale.

The Great Pterosaur Makeover

Nothing has ever flown through the air as magnificently as a giant pterosaur. Not that I’ve seen one to say for absolutely certain. The last of the great leathery-winged flyers died out with the non-avian dinosaurs, in the mass extinction that struck the planet 66 million years ago. Still, I can’t imagine anything more spectacular than one of these gangly, fuzzy reptiles – the largest being as tall as a giraffe with a wingspan over thirty three feet across – pole-vaulting into the air and rising into the Cretaceous sky. And in his new book Pterosaurs, paleontologist and artist Mark Witton pays tribute to these charismatic creatures by reconstructing and restoring them in exacting detail.

Pterosaurs suffer from a bit of an image problem. For one thing, many people confuse these awkward-looking creatures with dinosaurs. So far as we know now, as Witton covers in an early chapter, the variety of pterosaur forms – from tiny toothed flappers to beaked giants that were the largest animals ever to fly – composes the sister group to the Dinosauria. That is, pterosaurs were the closest cousins of the dinosaurs but not dinosaurs themselves. (Although experts continue to debate precisely where pterosaurs are rooted in life’s tree, made all the more complicated by the elusiveness of the very first pterosaurs in the fossil record.)

More than that, pterosaurs are popular enough to be familiar but don’t enjoy the same celebrity status of dinosaurs. That means that images of the Mesozoic gliders tend to lag behind the latest science. Often, famous genera like Pteranodon are still depicted as smooth-skinned cliff dwellers that skimmed the seas for fish, when discoveries have indicated that Pteranodon probably had a fuzzy body covering, could launch into the air from a standing start, and was incapable of scooping piscine meals from the surface waters. And that’s not to mention all the weird and wonderful pterosaur forms, many decked out with spectacular crests, that paleontologists have recently found.

Witton’s new tribute to pterosaurs gives these fantastic fossil creatures a much-needed makeover in two crucial ways. Not only does the book bring the science of pterosaurs up to date – at long last following-up other classics such as David Unwin’s The Pterosaurs and Peter Wellenhofer’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs – but Witton is a highly-skilled and imaginative artist who ably reconstructs the bones of the animals and brings them back to life in startling poses. Witton’s pterosaurs  are fantastical creatures deserving their own time in the spotlight.

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Pterodaustro strikes a pose. Art by Mark Witton.

Not only does Witton’s book contain a slew of highly-detailed skeletal diagrams that will help readers understand the strange skeletal construction of pterosaurs, but his imaginative illustrations of the living animals are true treasures. I’ve scarcely seen a more adorable prehistoric creature than Witton’s rendition of a baby Nemicolopterus crypticus, and the beginning of a chapter on a particular pterosaur group called the Thalassodromidae features one such crested creature skipping along the ground to nab a little dinosaur in apparent revenge for the discovery of a spinosaur tooth embedded in a pterosaur bone. Witton’s wry sense of humor often comes out in these depictions. An illustration of a gaggle of large pterosaurs soaring off panel near the end of the book reads “Realizing that the next chapter is about pterosaur extinction, a flock of the Maastrichtian Romanian pterosaur Hatzegopteryx thambena tries to fly back to an earlier part of the book to avoid the chop.” Marvelous.

Witton’s combination of style and substance makes Pterosaurs a true treasure and an absolute must for anyone curious about the extinct flyers. The book doesn’t shy away from technical terminology – Witton is exact in his use of pterosaur names, osteological landmarks, and other scientific details – but the book is written in a jovial, friendly style that I’d like to think has been influenced by Witton’s excellent work on his blog. Terms like “anurognathid” and “propatagia” will be unfamiliar, and maybe even uncomfortable, for casual readers, but Witton does a heroic job at explaining the terms he employs and guiding readers along without oversimplifying the text. This tone carries the reader from the history of pterosaur discoveries and what a pterosaur is, exactly, through a survey of all the known pterosaur groups and what we know about how they lived. If you’re truly invested in learning about pterosaurs, Witton’s book is a wealth of information that will be of great use to both specialists and curious general readers.

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Dinosaurs sometimes ate pterosaurs, and big pterosaurs may have sometimes scooped up dinosaur babies. Art by Mark Witton.

From physiology to feeding habits, Witton’s book covers most everything known about pterosaurs while also laying out conundrums and unknowns. There is still much to discover about these animals, especially since there are sadly none left to observe in life. Still, Witton parts on an optimistic note. “There are more pterosaur researchers now than at any other time in the last 228 years of pterosaurology, and new discoveries are being unearthed, described, and analyzed at record rates,” Witton writes. This groundswell will continue to update and alter our image of pterosaurs. For now, though, there is only one place I know of where pterosaur lives can be observed in some semblance of what they actually were, and that’s in the pages of Witton’s Pterosaurs.

[I should also note that Mark contributed two wonderful illustrations of dinosaurs to my first book, Written in Stone.]

Top Image: Art by Mark Witton, from Flickr.