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New paper: at last, a small pterosaur species from the latest Cretaceous

September 15, 2016:

by Mark Witton

As the Cretaceous fossil record enters its final two stages - the Campanian and Maastrichtian - several unusual things seem to happen in the world of flying reptiles. Firstly, we see the end result of a steady drop off in pterosaur diversity leaving only azhdarchids - those often long-necked, long faced animals that we cover here with some regularity - with a strong, widespread fossil record. It's known that nyctosaurids and (thanks to recent discoveries) perhaps pteranodontids survived until the very end of the Mesozoic in at least two locations, but azhdarchids are globally distributed and dominate the pterosaur fossil record at this time. The overwhelming precedence of azhdarchids in the Late Cretaceous is an anomaly: at no other point in the pterosaur fossil record does one clade feature so prominently.

Secondly, Campanian and Maastrichtian pterosaurs are, without exception, pretty big animals. Many species from this time are renowned for their gigantic size: it's these stages which give us the famous 10 m wingspan, 250 kg colossi like Quetzalcoatlus, Arambourgiania and Hatzegopteryx, as well as a number of other giant azhdarchids which are too poorly known for generic titles. Coinciding with the evolution of the giants is a loss of small pterosaur taxa - those animals less than 2.5 m across the wings which are present, more-or-less, throughout the rest of pterosaur history. This shift in body size is sometimes interpreted as pterosaurs demonstrating 'Cope's Rule', the somewhat controversial proposal that species evolve towards large body size over time (Hone and Benton 2007; Benson et al. 2014). It's argued by some that competition from birds may be the driver behind this trend, as early avians fought small flying reptiles for ecological space and ultimately forced pterosaurs into larger sizes (e.g. Benson et al. 2014). Note that this concept is not without its detractors, including myself - I won't go into my reasons now but I plan to outline them here eventually.

Whether you agree with the bird-pterosaur competitive displacement hypothesis or not, we can't disagree that the end of the Cretaceous is almost entirely devoid of small pterosaur remains. Only a handful of specimens record small pterosaurs in the Campanian and Maastrichtian, and they're all tricky to work with. Aside from being highly fragmentary, some are controversially identified (such as Piksi barbarulna, an alleged small pterosaur from the Two Medicine Formation - see Agnolin and Varricho 2012 for the pro-pterosaur case) and others represent probable juvenile individuals (Godfrey and Currie 2005). Whatever it signifies, the lack of diminutive pterosaur specimens from the close of the Mesozoic is a real phenomenon of our fossil record, and any new specimen of a small, latest Cretaceous flying reptile has to be something to get excited about.

It's this point where a new paper, published today by Liz Martin-Silverstone, myself, Victoria Arbour and Phil Currie comes in. Our new work, which you can check out without restriction at the open access journal Royal Society Open Science, presents a new small pterosaur fossil from the Campanian Northumberland Formation of British Columbia. The specimen number - RBCM.EH.2009.019.0001 - is pretty unwieldy, so I've been calling it the 'Hornby azhdarchoid' or the 'Hornby pterosaur' after it's discovery on Hornby Island, just off the coast of Vancouver. As you can see below, the Hornby specimen is not pretty. Following our presentation of the fossil at SVPCA 2016, pterosaur guru David Unwin suggested we might have the ugliest pterosaur fossil on record (or at least tied the game). But while not well preserved, we do at least have several bones to play with: most of a humerus, three fused vertebrae (from the notarium, a set of fused shoulder vertebral elements), a few loose dorsal vertebrae and some other odds and ends that defy identification. This makes it the first set of associated bones of a small latest Cretaceous pterosaur, which is at least a step in the right direction for their paltry fossil record. For reasons discussed in the paper (concerning taphonomy, element size and likely identifications) we assume these remains represent one individual.

I don't want to rehash the full gory details of our study here - please read the paper for the technical aspects - but instead want to outline our main points. The first thing to clear is that we've been careful to rule out an avian ID for the specimen. The Northumberland Formation contains several bird fossils and the quality of the specimen means that many obvious pterosaur features are missing. The Royal British Columbia Museum was kind enough to ship the specimen all the way from Vancouver, Canada to Southampton, UK just so Liz and I make a thorough assessment on this issue. Happily, we found the specimen to be very pterosaur like in every aspect (even as fragments, pterosaur bones are quite distinctive) as well as differing from Mesozoic birds in several ways. It particularly contrasts in having a notarium, which seem absent from Mesozoic birds (note that we compared the notarium element compared carefully with Mesozoic bird synsacra to be sure of our identification), as well as having a pterosaur-like, rather than avian, proximal humerus morphology. But we're not bird workers so, to be extra sure, we showed the material to fossil bird experts in Canada and the UK (including people who've identified and published on the Northumberland Formation avians). No-one we spoke to suggested an avian ID and, moreover, we are aware that other people with expertise in both birds and pterosaurs (including our paper editor) have seen the material and prefer a pterosaur ID. Based on our research and the testimonials of others, we're as confident as we can be that the Hornby fragments represent a pterosaur, not a bird.

We've identified the Hornby specimen as an azhdarchoid, and noted several features indicative of, but not conclusive to, an azhdarchid ID. We suspect the specimen is an azhdarchid because of its provenance and its basic anatomical characteristics, but the specimen does not contain the right bits to confirm an azhdarchid identity. Nonetheless, narrowing the specimen down to Azhdarchoidea allows us to estimate its body proportions and confirm that the specimen was indeed a small animal when it died. We estimated its wingspan using two methods factoring both the humerus and vertebrae, and each pointed to a wingspan between 1.4 and 1.6 m. That puts our pterosaur at a comparable size to a good sized-seagull and, while these are respectably-sized modern birds, this is small for a latest Cretaceous pterosaur. Rather than poking giraffes in the face, our little chap would only just be beyond predation risk from an average housecat (below). The only contemporary pterosaur competing with the Hornby azhdarchoid for size is Piksi, a poorly known possible pterosaur from the western US. Our new study lists a number of reasons why the pterosaurian characterisation of Piksi is problematic however: in short, its morphology is all wrong for a flying reptile and we suspect a non-pterosaurian ID is more likely. The Hornby specimen is thus a contender for the smallest latest Cretaceous pterosaur currently known.

This million dollar question, of course, is whether the specimen is a small juvenile or a small adult. The former would be neat, but the latter is potentially significant. The findings of recent, detailed histological examinations of pterosaur fossils are permitting increasingly good understanding of their growth regimes (e.g. de Ricqles et al. 2000; Prondvai et al. 2012), so we made a section of the humerus to understand how old the Hornby animal was when it died. Our section showed a mix of bone textures, some indicating that the specimen was still growing, but other features (secondary osteons, an endosteal lamella, lines of arrested growth and a large structure forming on the internal bone surface) are indicative of relative maturity (de Ricqles et al. 2000; Prondvai et al. 2012). We found the endosteal lamella (a band of bone deposited around the internal bone cavity) of particular interest, as this seems to signify the end of internal bone expansion in azhdarchoids, and is thus a hallmark of near-mature animals (note that this is not true for all pterosaurs - see Prondvai et al. 2012). The fused dorsal vertebrae are a further marker of maturity, as pterosaurs do not develop these features until they're at least subadults. The exact timing of notarium formation seems to differ from taxon to taxon (e.g. Bennett 1993; Kellner 2015), but their development does not seem to start until these animals were near to full size, if not at full size already. Putting these and a few other observations together suggests that the Hornby pterosaur was a latest-stage juvenile or subadult: in other words, it looks like a genuinely small pterosaur, not just a juvenile one. We don't know how much larger it might have got before it reached full size, but its ontogenetic characteristics and what we know of pterosaur growth regimes suggests it was close to maximum size at time of death. Given its estimated 1.5 m wingspan, it had a good chance of remaining smaller than the next smallest, 2.5 m wingspan pterosaur currently known the Campanian or Maastrichtian (McGowen et al. 2002).

A small pterosaur amongst the pigeons
There's obviously a limit to what a single fragmentary specimen can tell you about the evolution of a group, but what the Hornby specimen means for pterosaur evolution is interesting and - if we've interpreted it correctly - potentially significant. Most obviously, it suggests that small pterosaurs may have been present in the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous after all, at least in one part of the world. Regular readers will be aware that there's growing evidence for Late Cretaceous pterosaur faunas being less uniform than previously realised (e.g. Vremir et al. 2013, 2015), and our new specimen plugs into this picture nicely: it increasingly seems that the end Cretaceous wasn't just a stage for large-to-giant long-necked azhdarchids. What's more, while the specimen only provides one data point against the idea that birds ousted small pterosaurs, the presence of at least two types of bird in the Northumberland Formation seems to indicate small pterosaurs and birds coexisted in at least this palaeoenvironment. We might see this as a continuation of the coexistence pterosaurs and birds demonstrate in Jurassic and Early Cretaceous localities: maybe pterosaurs and birds got along OK after all.

To my mind, one of the most significant things we do in the paper is discuss the 'face value' interpretations of Late Cretaceous pterosaur diversity: should we really be interpreting the lack of small pterosaur fossils as a genuine feature of their history when their fossil record is so patchy? We point out that some types of small pterosaurs - juveniles - had to exist in the Late Cretaceous, and yet their fossils are almost entirely unknown. We argue that this indicates a preservation bias against small bodied pterosaurs of any kind in the Campanian and Maastrichtian. Until we amass a good number of small juvenile pterosaur bones from this time without any small adults we cannot distinguish preservational interference from genuine biological signals. Perhaps the shift of pterosaurs from marine to non-marine habits through the Cretaceous (Butler et al. 2013) accounts for this lack of data. It's well known that terrestrial settings are less conducive to preserving relatively delicate fossils and small examples of even robust terrestrial animals like dinosaurs rarely fossilise in these deposits. We have to wonder what chance small pterosaur skeletons - which were strong in life, but fragile and weak once exposed to decay - have of making it into the fossil record in these settings. The fact the Hornby specimen is in such a sorry state perhaps reflects the rough time small pterosaur fossils experience under 'typical' fossilisation regimes, rather than the far gentler handling of animal remains evident at fossil Lagerstätten.

With all this said, the most important message of the paper has to be this: we need more data on small pterosaurs in the latest Cretaceous. The specimens we have are scrappy, hard to work with and offer limited scope for analysis. Thus, any small Late Cretaceous pterosaur material is significant, and whether they're lying unnoticed in museum collections or pulled straight out of the field, they are noteworthy specimens which need to be put on record. Curators and researchers, please keep your eyes peeled!

And that, in a nutshell, is our new paper: be sure to check it out if you want more details. You can also read Liz's take on the study over at The Conversation and other experts have been chiming in at news sites covering the story. With a bit of luck, this is not the only news you'll be hearing about Late Cretaceous pterosaurs from these quarters this year - more on these projects as they move along. All that's left to do is to thank Liz and Victoria for inviting me to collaborate with them on the new specimen - I learned a huge amount trying to get my head around this challenging material and its histology, and had a blast working with them.

This blogpost, paper and artwork are sponsored by Patreon
Regular readers will know that this blog and its art are sponsored by a suite of awesome Patrons, but this post is proof that this support goes further than mere internet tomfoolery and contributes to papers and outreach, too. Supporting my blog from $1 a month not only helps keep this blog ticking over, but helps me contribute thoughts, words and illustrations to scientific research. In return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress sneak-previews of paintings, high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. For this post, we'll be talking about the PR art I've done for this research: how was the azhdarchoid reconstructed from that pile of rubble specimen? What's the story with the landscape image and why is there an ammonite in it? How many iterations did we go through to get that composition? Head over to Patreon to get access to this and the rest of my exclusive content!

Agnolin, F. L., & Varricchio, D. (2012). Systematic reinterpretation of Piksi barbarulna Varricchio, 2002 from the Two Medicine Formation (Upper Cretaceous) of Western USA (Montana) as a pterosaur rather than a bird. Geodiversitas, 34(4), 883-894.
Bennett, S. C. (1993). The ontogeny of Pteranodon and other pterosaurs. Paleobiology, 19(01), 92-106.
Benson, R. B., Frigot, R. A., Goswami, A., Andres, B., & Butler, R. J. (2014). Competition and constraint drove Cope's rule in the evolution of giant flying reptiles. Nature communications, 5, 3567.
Butler, R. J., Benson, R. B., & Barrett, P. M. (2013). Pterosaur diversity: untangling the influence of sampling biases, Lagerstätten, and genuine biodiversity signals. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 372, 78-87.
Godfrey, S. J., & Currie, P. J. (2005). Pterosaurs. Dinosaur Provincial Park: A Spectacular Ancient Ecosystem Revealed, 292-311.
Hone, D. W. E., & Benton, M. J. (2007). Cope's Rule in the Pterosauria, and differing perceptions of Cope's Rule at different taxonomic levels. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20(3), 1164-1170.
Kellner, A. W. (2015). Comments on Triassic pterosaurs with discussion about ontogeny and description of new taxa. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 87(2), 669-689.
Martin-Silverstone, E., Witton, M. P., Arbour, V. M, & Currie, P. J. (2016). A small azhdarchoid pterosaur from the latest Cretaceous, the age of flying giants. Royal Society Open Access, 3, 160333.
McGowen, M. R., Padian, K., De Sosa, M. A., & Harmon, R. J. (2002). Description of Montanazhdarcho minor, an azhdarchid pterosaur from the Two Medicine Formation (Campanian) of Montana. PaleoBios, 22(1), 1-9.
Prondvai, E., Stein, K., Ősi, A., & Sander, M. P. (2012). Life history of Rhamphorhynchus inferred from bone histology and the diversity of pterosaurian growth strategies. PLoS One, 7(2), e31392.
Vremir, M., Kellner, A. W., Naish, D., & Dyke, G. J. (2013). A new azhdarchid pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous of the Transylvanian Basin, Romania: implications for azhdarchid diversity and distribution. PLoS One, 8(1), e54268.
Vremir, M., Witton, M., Naish, D., Dyke, G., Brusatte, S. L., Norell, M., & Totoianu, R. (2015). A Medium-Sized Robust-Necked Azhdarchid Pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Maastrichtian of Pui (Haţ eg Basin, Transylvania, Romania). American Museum Novitates, (3827), 1-16.





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