The Pterodactylus that never was

Those guys and gals who study fossils to make sense of life on our planet have a tough job. These scientists (palaeontologists) often have a few small fossils to work from to recreate creatures and environments from millions of years ago. Luckily the bones shapes are unique to individual species, so by comparing the fossils they find with identified ones they can work out what creature it was. Sometimes, however, even with more than one bone, it can be difficult to identify the fossil. Which leads nicely to this weeks bad cast.

Surely a most elegant cast. Or perhaps an etching in an old clay tile?

Surely a most elegant cast. Or perhaps an etching in an old clay tile?

 

It is impressively difficult to see what this is. The ‘pyramid’ is actually the reamins of bones; the arm and finger bone of a flying reptile called a pterosaur. These amazing creatures were flying in the skies above the great dinosaurs; but they were not dinosaurs.

You can just about make out two(?) fingers coming off at the tip of the pyramid. This is a classic pterosaur arm; a long arm bone leading to small fingers with an extra long bone (an elongated ‘little’ finger). This odd arm is the pterosaurs adaptation for flight and supports a flexible skin for their wing;

The beauty of evolution. A different solution to a familiar problem; how to fly.

The beauty of evolution. A different solution to a familiar problem; how to fly. (‘digit’ = finger).   Image from here.

 

Now those two diagrams are together, of course you can see that this crap cast was taken from a pterosaur wing. Maybe not. Dont worry, I wondered what the heck this was when I came across ten drawers full of these ‘beautiful’ casts.

What species did the wing come from? Luckily, the museum accession card tells us. A species called Pterodactylus longicollum was named after a discovery in 1854 by the German palaeontologist, Mr Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer. Great! This identification was based on a better fossil than this cast is.

Lovely sketch of the Pterodactylus longicollum holotype. Image from here.

Lovely sketch of the Pterodactylus longicollum holotype. Image from here.

 

But all was not well. For this creature was no Pterodactylus longicollum. A re-examination of this pterosaur has compared it to lots of other fossils and shows that this flying reptile doesn’t even belong in the same Genus as Pterodactylus; it is a completely new Genus called Ardeadactylus (meaning heron-wing). The species name was kept, so now this enigmatic flying reptile (not a dinosaur) is called Ardeadactylus longicollum.

There is always a reason behind the scientific name of an animal or plant. Ardeadactylus was so named because it may have been heron-like; this pterosaur had a long neck, which could have been used to grab fish from the water. Unlike herons, Ardeadactylus had rather big and very sharp teeth; perfect for gripping slippery, slimy fish.

For a short while there existed a non-existent species.  Due to the rarity of animals and plants being preserved as fossils, this sometimes happens in palaeontology. With new research and new fossil discoveries, old ideas are debated and sometimes pushed aside based on new evidence. Taxonomy (the naming of animals and plants) is a tricky business. Even species around today are being moved from one group to another with more detailed genetic comparisons. Fossils, often just a few scraps of bones, are meticulously analysed and using the evidence they are assigned a scientific name. This can be updated depending on more discoveries.

Only two specimens of Ardeadactylus survive  after many original fossils labelled as Pterodactylus longicollum were destroyed during the Second World War. Could this bad cast be one of the last surviving replicas of one of the original ‘Pterodactylus longicollum‘ fossils discovered? I sincerely hope not.

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