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Literature / Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy

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In the field of paleontology it's very difficult to find a reference guide that exclusively and extensively describes up-to-date information on pterosaurs. As an animal group, pterosaurs tend to either be ignored in favor of their dinosaur cousins or simply given a cursory glance at some point before the focus returns to the dinos. And that's in educational media. In popular media, everything that makes pterosaurs a unique and interesting class of animals is completely ignored in favor of a view that they're just "dinosaurs with wings", resulting in ugly, wyvern-like abominations that fit more as caricatures of pterosaurs than the real thing.

In the late 2000s, where interest and research on pterosaurs began to grow, there was a desperate need to change that.

Enter Mark P. Witton, a renowned paleontologist, paleoartist and pterosaur expert, who published a book in 2013 entitled Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. With Witton's beautiful and vividly detailed artwork coupled with a narration that is both informative and entertaining, this book supplies a fair amount of info on pterosaurs is as up-to-date as possible.

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Unfortunately, paleontology is a very swiftly evolving science, so some information quickly became outdated. As far as pterosaur research goes, however, it holds up surprisingly well and is a wealth of fascinating information.

Basically the pterosaur version of Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages.

The work contains examples of:

  • Acrophobic Bird: Dimorphodon is noted to be a poor flyer, so it likely opted to spend more time clambering along the ground or in the trees and only took to the air in emergencies (the accompanying image being of two Dimorphodons flying away from a hungry theropod).
  • All Flyers Are Birds: Played with; while Witton refers to many of the comparisons between pterosaurs, bats and birds as "unwarranted", flight pattern comparisons are necessary in order to understand how pterosaurs flew. For example, tests suggest that Pterodactylus and Pterodaustro flew like small wading birds, Pteranodon soared like an albatross and Dimorphodon was similar in flight patterns to a chicken or similarly sized ground bird.
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  • Amazing Technicolor Wildlife: Witton loves coloring his pterosaurs as vibrantly as possible!
  • Artistic License – Paleontology: Discussed in the introduction. Otherwise averted.
  • Circling Vultures: Witton illustrates a flock of Istiodactylus doing this. Later, in the chapter specifically focusing on istiodactylids, a trio of them can be seen eating the remains of a dead stegosaur.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: Averted. Witton mentions how pop-culture commonly depicts pterosaurs as being helpless at anything beyond flying. While flying was their main talent, he notes that they were also capable walkers and runners, the smaller ones could climb, all of them had jumping prowess and some of them could even swim.
  • Giant Flyer: The biggest of the big pterosaurs are brought up, including Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx, though even the more modestly sized ones (like Pteranodon) are shown to be pretty huge.
  • Lemony Narrator: Witton can slip into this at times.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: Marine crocodiles and crocodile-like spinosaurids are cited as occasional predators of pterosaurs.
  • Ptero Soarer: Very much defied. Witton briefly discusses this trope early in the book, but states that in order to really understand pterosaurs, you have to shove all those preconceived notions out of your mind and focus on what's real.
  • Seldom-Seen Species: Many obscure pterosaurs are discussed in this book, like the Nyctosaurus that graces the cover. Very much justified, as it discusses every single known pterosaur family.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Witton's narration dabbles into this.
  • Stealth Pun: Caviramus is illustrated taking shelter inside a cave.
  • Stock Animal Behavior: Discussed and subverted. Witton brings up proposed lifestyles for certain pterosaurs and mentions how some of the particularly popular ones typically end up falling victim to Science Marches On:
    • Thalassodromeus and Rhamphorhynchus were not skimmers. They were more likely aerial predators and dip-feeders respectively.
    • Conversely, Pteranodon was probably not a dip-feeder (didn't have the neck bones/muscles for it) but instead a pursuit swimmer.
    • Practically every proposed foraging method for azhdarchids is ultimately canned in favor of terrestrial stalking.
    • Istiodactylids, once thought to be fish-eaters, turned out to be vulture-like scavengers.
  • Stock Dinosaurs: It wouldn't be a pterosaur book without the famous Pteranodon. Witton even discusses its popularity in the chapter involving it. Rhamphorhynchus, Pterodactylus, Quetzalcoatlus and Dimorphodon are also given focus. Notably, very few true dinosaurs actually appear in the book.
  • Threatening Shark: Sharks are stated to have preyed on seagoing pterosaurs.
  • Vegetarian Carnivore: Discussed with the tapejarids. Witton agrees that fruit may have made up at least part of their diet, but they may have actually been omnivores.
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