7 Great Books about Evolution, for Beginners

Are you an interested non-scientist who has a lot of questions about evolution and would like to learn more about it, but just doesn’t know where to start? Perhaps you’ve had, or continue to have, misgivings about biological evolution based on things you may have heard from your pastor or read on the internet. Well, not to worry! Here at Deep Time Dispatches, I’ve got you covered! I’ve read quite a few popular science books on paleontology, evolution, and earth history, so I’ve decided to share this list of seven beginner-level books on evolution. The popular literature on evolutionary biology and related sciences is massive; more than any one person could ever read in a lifetime. These are just my personal recommendations, and are not meant as a definitive list, nor are they ranked in any particular order. They are seven books among many that I’ve found to be informative, engaging, and just plain fun to read.

 

Am I a Monkey? Six Big Questions about Evolution

In this wonderful little book, biologist Francisco J. Ayala tackles six of the most common questions directed at scientists about evolutionary theory. At just 83 pages, you can read it in a day. It’s a great book to start out with if you’re a novice to evolutionary science, and it may encourage you to read more deeply into the subject.

 

Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

Without a doubt, Your Inner Fish by paleontologist Neil Shubin is one of the best popular nonfiction books that I’ve ever read. Shubin’s prose is remarkably jargon-free and provides a great introduction to the sciences of paleontology and evolutionary biology. Shubin explores the deep ancestry of the human species, clearly laying out the anatomical evidence for the common descent of all animal life. Highly recommended.

 

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins

If you’re interested specifically in human evolution, my first recommendation would be Masters of the Planet by paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall. This book is a brilliant overview of the current paleontological and archaeological evidence for human evolution, and is a pretty enjoyable read too.

 

The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: And Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution

Also by Ian Tattersall, this book acts as a terrific companion piece to Masters of the Planet. With his characteristic wit and bluntness, Tattersall discusses the history of paleoanthropology as a science, from its beginnings in the 1850s, up to the present day. Like Masters of the Planet, it is informative, well-argued, and entertaining.

 

Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution

This book had a great impact on me when I first read it as a teenager. Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist and professed Roman Catholic, uses logic and scientific evidence to utterly demolish the three main strains of creationist thought: young-earth, intelligent design, and irreducible complexity. He also takes to task those scientists who try to promote a completely atheistic, materialist philosophy. Miller shows convincingly that evolution does not negate the need for God nor does it stand opposed to the Christian faith.

 

Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul

Also by Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory is in many ways a follow-up to Finding Darwin’s God. Miller was called as an expert witness in the landmark 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover court case. The judge’s ruling is worth reading in its entirety. In Only a Theory, Miller demonstrates the stunning genetic evidence for evolution. Evolution is more than a theory; it’s a model with tremendous explanatory power. Without it, nothing in the realm of biology makes sense. In our current “post-fact” media environment, this message is more important than ever.

 

The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

The Story of Earth is a terrific overview of what scientists like to call “Deep Time.” As with the other books on this list, it’s easy to read and very informative. Robert M. Hazan takes his readers on a grand tour of the history of our planet and reveals the surprising ways that life has had an influence on the earth’s geological history, and vise versa.

 

What are your personal favorite books about evolution? I’d love to know! Feel free to post your own list of recommendations in the comments.

 

 

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Jurassic World Sequel Official Title & Poster Revealed! – My Thoughts & Speculations

In the months since the first promo image from the set of the Jurassic World sequel hit the internet (see my analysis here), fans the world over have been eagerly awaiting the announcement of the film’s official title. Last Thursday, June 22, a year to the day until the film’s theatrical release, the JW team finally revealed the movie’s title, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, as well as a teaser poster:

My initial gut reaction to the new title was pretty much: “Meh”. I honestly don’t know what the deal is with Hollywood’s strange fascination with overwrought subtitles for sequels (I’m looking at you Independence Day: Resurgence). “Jurassic World 2” would have been a perfectly serviceable alternative. Short, simple, and to-the-point. Fallen Kingdom, I’ll admit, sounds evocative, but to my mind seems like it would be better suited as the name of a Jurassic World tie-in video game or a Universal Studios theme park ride.

Not much official information has been revealed about the plot of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom beyond a few vague hints, but Jurassic Park fan sites have been abuzz with rumors ever since the film began production earlier this year. Possible clues in the title and poster seem to lend credence to some of these speculations. For example, one persistent online rumor has it that the plot of the movie revolves around a mission to save the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar from an imminent volcanic eruption threatening life on the island. The “Fallen Kingdom” subtitle and the cracked and crumbling JW logo certainly bring to mind a sense of impending doom, of an era coming to an end. The floating embers on the poster could certainly be a clue pointing towards the volcanic nature of the coming disaster. Recent set photos showing full-size dinosaur models in cages may further confirm the dinosaur evacuation plot, as perhaps does the tagline “Life finds a way.”

Of course, all of this is idle speculation until we see something more concrete, like the first teaser trailer. I’ve made no secret of my disappointment with Jurassic World, but I’m willing to give Fallen Kingdom a chance. As I’ve written before, I want to see more and better dinosaur movies. JW didn’t do much for me, but the franchise can bounce back. Ultimately, Fallen Kingdom is still a “Jurassic” film, and, for better or worse, is carrying on the legacy of my favorite film of all time, Jurassic Park. Until its release next year, I plan to continue covering news updates for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom right here on Deep Time Dispatches.  Stay tuned!

Book Review – Dragon Teeth

Dragon TeethDragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!

I’ve been a fan of Michael Crichton’s novels since childhood. As a kid, I was always reading well above my grade level, and by the time I was around eleven or twelve years old, I had already read Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and Congo. I even tried my hand at writing my own dinosaur stories based on Jurassic Park.

Since Crichton’s untimely death in 2008, several of his unpublished novels have been released; and while I unfortunately haven’t yet had the chance to read Pirate Latitudes or Micro, I was extremely excited in the lead-up to the release of Dragon Teeth. We get to experience a new Michael Crichton novel involving dinosaurs (or, in this case, their fossilized bones). You can’t go wrong with that!

While Crichton is best known for his sci-fi techno-thrillers, he also wrote several works of historical fiction, including The Great Train Robbery, and the aforementioned Pirate Latitudes. In Dragon Teeth, we have a welcomed return to that genre.

Dragon Teeth is set in the 1870s during a frenzied period of early American paleontology known as “The Bone Wars,” due to the intensely personal and bitter feud of two rival paleontologists: Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia. The American West at that time was still very much wild, and in some places lawless. The Indian Wars were still raging across the Great Plains, and cutthroat bandits laid in wait for unwary travelers. Rather than focus on the larger-than-life figures of Cope and Marsh, Dragon Teeth revolves around the adventures of the William Johnson (an entirely fictitious character) who is an entitled and indolent freshman at Yale College. Attempting to win a bet and prove himself to his peers, Johnson signs on with Professor Marsh’s summer 1876 expedition to the rich fossil hunting grounds west of the Mississippi.

However, the eccentric and ever-paranoid Marsh soon suspects Johnson of being a spy for his arch-nemesis E.D. Cope, and ditches our young hero in Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, Johnson has a chance encounter with Cope himself, an indefatigable, seemingly affable academic with a surprisingly explosive temper. Johnson soon finds himself travelling with Cope and his crew to the Judith River badlands of Montana to dig for dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, the Cope party faces dangers both behind, and ahead. They are constantly shadowed by Marsh and his agents, who seek to impede and sabotage their progress by any means necessary. They are also marching directly into a war zone. They will be prospecting in the heart of Indian territory mere weeks after Custer’s 7th Cavalry was annihilated by the Sioux at Little Big Horn.

William Johnson is a likable, relatable hero. I really enjoyed his arc over the course of the novel. At its heart, Dragon Teeth is essentially a classic coming-of-age tale. Persevering through many hardships and harrowing adventures, Johnson matures from a privileged, directionless adolescent, into hardened adulthood. He quite literally wears the scars of his frontier experiences. In fact, I was quite pleased to find many thematic similarities (surely unintentional) between Dragon Teeth and one of my favorite novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They’re essentially the same kind of story. Bilbo Baggins is also unexpectedly thrust from his life of quiet comfort, into a harsh and often dangerous world. Over the course of his journey “there and back again” Bilbo overcomes many obstacles and endures great trials, discovering inner strength, courage, and resilience he never knew he possessed. Ultimately, Bilbo returns home as a person changed for the better.

Dragon Teeth is written mostly in the third person, with occasional excerpts from Johnson’s journals spicing up the narrative. I felt while reading that I might have enjoyed the story even more if Crichton had chosen to write it entirely from a first person view, in Johnson’s voice.

I was surprised by how short many of the chapters were, some being only a couple of pages long. At first, I was worried that this would make the book seem rushed or unfinished. Instead, I think it balanced out as a positive, making for a brisk, page-turning reading experience. The book was hard to put down, and I constantly found myself saying “Just one more chapter…”

As per usual for Crichton, there are various asides in which he explains the historical context of unfolding events: The Indian Wars, the expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the growing public debate over Darwin’s newly published theories about evolution. The antics of Cope and Marsh are delightfully crazy, and, of course, Crichton takes quite a bit of creative license with the actual historical persons and events (though, more on that later). Marsh is pretty much portrayed as a villain, and Cope in a more sympathetic light. The real-life feud between Cope and Marsh was a bit more complicated, nuanced, and nasty than described here, but for narrative purposes, it works well enough and I could mostly overlook it.

By the halfway point, the narrative takes an unexpected turn. Johnson is separated from the rest of the Cope party during an Indian attack, and finds himself stranded with several crates of priceless fossils in the notorious mining town of Deadwood in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. At this point, Johnson’s story transforms into a pretty standard Western, with all the associated tropes, such as the naïve young Easterner who must survive in a lawless frontier town populated by cutthroats and desperados. Paleontology and the Bone Wars take a back seat for a good part of the latter half of the book. At this point, I was afraid that I would completely lose interest in the story. Fortunately, the Deadwood interlude had enough excitement, suspense, and colorful (if a bit clichéd) characters to keep me reading. I really felt for Johnson in his predicament. I wanted to see him escape Deadwood alive and make it home with Cope’s fossils intact. I think that this speaks volumes about Crichton’s ability to craft a compelling protagonist.

The most glaring historical/scientific inaccuracy in the novel involves the fossils that Johnson must protect while in Deadwood: The titular “Dragon Teeth.” It’s Johnson who uncovers these fossil teeth, described as being about the size of one’s fist, with multiple, intricate cusps. From the size of the teeth alone, Cope extrapolates that they came from the largest dinosaur yet discovered, which he promptly names Brontosaurus, the “thunder lizard.” As a dinosaur nerd, this left me scratching my head. The historical record clearly establishes that Brontosaurus (which may or may not be the same animal as Apatosaurus) was discovered by Marsh. Furthermore, Brontosaurus and its kin, the familiar, long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs known as sauropods, had very tiny heads relative to their immense body-sizes. Consequently, their teeth were small, peg-like affairs, nothing at all like how Crichton describes them. I’m frankly surprised that Crichton, a writer known for his meticulous research into technical subjects, could have made such an elementary error. This wouldn’t have been difficult information to look up, even before the internet. I might have been able to let the matter go, but the “brontosaur teeth” end up becoming a major plot device throughout the back half of the novel. But, while this certainly irritated me as a dinosaur nerd, it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment of the novel by any means.

The ending of the novel also left me with some mixed feelings. There is a twist in one of the last few scenes, where a supporting character is revealed to be more than who they seem. I don’t think that this twist was handled very well, as it left me with many more questions than answers.

Despite these few quibbles, if you’re a Michael Crichton fan, I’d say you should definitely give Dragon Teeth a read. It may be different from many of Crichton’s other novels, but it has his indelible stamp. Even if you’re just interested in American history, or if you like historical fiction, especially Westerns, I think you’ll find Dragon Teeth to be an enjoyable summer read. Veteran Crichton fans will get exactly what they’re looking for. And if you’ve never read a Michael Crichton book before, Dragon Teeth is a great place to start.

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First Image From “Jurassic World 2”: My Thoughts and Speculations

I was not a fan of Jurassic World. Although it was a mildly entertaining monster-romp, it failed to recapture the synergy of terror and wonder so masterfully displayed in the original Jurassic Park. It came off instead as the cynical product of desperate Hollywood executives cashing in on audience loyalty to yet another nostalgic franchise. The lame attempts at “comedy” and the overblown action sequences made it come off as a straight up parody of Jurassic Park rather than a true sequel. Don’t get me wrong, I love action-packed monster movies (I had a blast at the theater watching Kong: Skull Island just last week), but what set JP apart from almost any other creature feature before or since was its vision of dinosaurs not as mindless, bloodthirsty killing machines, but as real animals whose complex behaviors were driven by instinct and shaped by millions of years of evolution. It was a groundbreaking depiction of dinosaurs in cinema, the culmination of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970s and ‘80s, and it cemented the modern image of intelligent, active, warm-blooded dinosaurs in the popular consciousness. But Jurassic World blithely threw that all away in favor of fictitious monstrosities like “Indominus rex” and weaponized Velociraptors. JW was better than the infamously bad Jurassic Park III, but that’s not saying much.

The majority of the moviegoing public disagreed, netting Jurassic World $1.6 billion, making it the fourth highest grossing film of all time! Such a staggering box-office performance meant that Universal Studios had no incentive to improve the dinosaurs in any potential sequel. On a scale of 1 to 10, my anticipation level for “Jurassic World 2” was in the negative digits (especially when I heard that the sequel might be doubling down on the silly weaponized raptors concept). To say the least, this movie had to make a strong first impression to even get me moderately interested in seeing it.

And believe it or not, I think they succeeded. On March 8, the film’s director Juan Antonio Bayona revealed the first official photograph from JW2.

JW2

And I like this image. A lot. The scene of a young girl standing in awe in front of a massive Triceratops skull in a room full of mounted dinosaur skeletons is poignant and evocative. It really calls back to that sense of wonder we all remember from the original Jurassic Park film. It’s an iconic image, full of thematic potential, both powerful and understated at the same time. Completely the opposite of the campiness of Jurassic World. This one photograph gives me hope that the filmmakers took to heart at least some of the critiques of paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts the world over. But does this promo shot truly signal a radical departure in tone for JW2 from its predecessor? A return to the franchise’s roots? I certainly hope so, but at this point it’s impossible to say for sure.

There’s been some speculation that this photo may be from a scene that takes place in the mansion of John Hammond (the late CEO of the InGen corporation responsible for cloning the dinosaurs) and it certainly looks vaguely similar to other rooms inside Hammond’ home that we saw briefly in the second film, The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Perhaps after Hammond’s death InGen decided to turn his house in to a museum open to the public? The absence of glass, guardrails, or any sort of barriers around the mounted skeletons (plus the furniture and potted plants in the background) gives me the impression that these mounts are part of someone’s private collection (Hammond’s?) and not displayed in a conventional natural history museum.

Speculation aside, the release of this image was a good first step by the creative team behind “Jurassic World 2” and seems to signal a desire to win back fans disenchanted by the last film. If you had asked me two weeks ago for my thoughts on JW2, I would have said that I wasn’t holding out much hope that it would be any good. Now, I’d say that I’m at least cautiously optimistic. Of course, this is only one image. We won’t get a much clearer idea of the plot and tone of the movie until the first trailer. Hopefully more set photos and promotional stills will be released in the meantime, and I look forward to analyzing those as well. Stay tuned for more coverage of “Jurassic World 2” right here on Deep Time Dispatches!

Book Review – The Lost City of the Monkey God

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True StoryThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most entertaining and well-written nonfiction books I’ve read in quite some time. Douglas Preston’s thrilling eyewitness account of the search for the legendary “White City” (a.k.a. “The Lost City of the Monkey God”) in the unexplored rainforest of Honduras had me enthralled from beginning to end. Preston is clearly a writer at the top of his game. He effortlessly transported me to the to the lost world of “T1” a remote and mysterious valley deep in jungle, uninhabited for five hundred years, surrounded by impenetrable mountains, and only accessible by helicopter. With a novelist’s skill, Preston describes in exquisite and vivid detail the colors, sounds, smells, and feel of the primeval jungle. A true page-turner, The Lost City is fast-paced and engrossing. And, in a sure sign of a well told story, I found it difficult to stop reading even at chapter breaks.

Preston summarizes the history of the quest for Lost City, a legend that goes back to rumors and hearsay reported by Spanish Conquistadores. Many attempts were made by twentieth century adventurers to locate the city on foot and by river. Some of these endeavors were legitimate, others were elaborate con jobs. Only in recent decades, with the advent of a sophisticated laser mapping technology called Lidar, were researchers finally able to penetrate the jungle canopy and reveal the remains of not one, but two ruined cities built by an as-yet unnamed Mesoamerican civilization.

My favorite section of the book was Preston’s harrowing firsthand account of the 2015 expedition to the ruins at T1. The group lived in constant fear of the deadly fer-de-lance, an extremely aggressive venomous snake. Several jaguars (heard but never seen) stalked in the night, just outside the makeshift camp. The team endured torrential downpours, dodged sinkholes of quickmud, and were tormented by squadrons of biting insects. All the while, they were making fabulous archaeological discoveries and treading ground not walked on by humans in five hundred years. It sounds like something out of a novel or a movie. I was surprised and delighted to learn that there were still blank spots on the map even in the twenty-first century.

Preston doesn’t shy away from the rancorous political and academic controversy that erupted around the expedition. Rather than dismissing the project’s critics and their concerns, however misguided or petty they sometimes were, he contacted many of them and gave them the opportunity to share their point of view.

T1 (eventually renamed The City of the Jaguar) and its neighbors were never conquered by the Spaniards, who avoided the jungle highlands, so what happened to this vanished people? It’s likely that a pandemic of smallpox, or some other Old World disease caused the fall of the City of the Jaguar. In a haunting and tragic irony, many member of the expedition, upon returning to civilization, were stricken by a horrifying skin disease caused by the flesh-ravaging microbe Leishmania braziliensis, native to Central and South America. Preston goes into frightening detail about this obscure tropical illness and his recovery at the National Institutes of Health. Like many stories from the archaeological record, the fate of la Cuidad del Jaguar is a cautionary tale relevant to our times. As global warming persists and the world grows ever more interconnected, there will be a greater risk of wide-spread pandemics of tropical diseases.

Lost City of the Monkey God is one of those stories of true adventure and exploration like Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs or Under a Lucky Star that really gets my heart racing and excites the armchair adventurer in me. I’ll likely reread this book sometime in the future, perhaps more than once. I would enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone interested in archaeology who loves well told adventure stories.

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My thoughts on Kong: Skull Island, Jurassic World, and the future of dinosaur movies

King Kong (1933) would definitely make my list of top ten films of all time. I’ve loved it ever since childhood, when I was captivated by the film’s spectacular dinosaurs (and of course the titular great ape himself) which remain impressive nearly eighty-four years later. These groundbreaking stop-motion creature effects were pioneered by visionary effects artist Willis O’Brien, paving the way for the modern action-adventure blockbuster. King Kong has inspired countless filmmakers, Hollywood and indie alike, over the last eight decades, from Steven Spielberg to James Rolfe. While Kong has been remade twice (in 1976 and 2005) with very mixed results, I have been eagerly awaiting Legendary Pictures’ upcoming reboot Kong: Skull Island set to hit theaters next month.

Yesterday I saw a report on a recent interview with Kong: Skull Island’s director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, in which he confirmed what many of us have suspected for some time now: There will be no dinosaurs in the new film. Of course, this isn’t without precedent: The 1976 remake didn’t have dinosaurs in it either. Also, dinosaurs have been conspicuously absent from the marketing for Kong: Skull Island. The most recent trailer featured a bizarre menagerie of megafauna, including a giant water buffalo, an enormous spider, and the enigmatic, reptilian “skull crawlers” (which are apparently the main creature-antagonists of the film).

I appreciate the director’s desire to differentiate his Kong reboot from previous iterations. I also understand that Kong: Skull Island exists within Legendary Pictures’ new kaiju shared-universe alongside Godzilla and his cohorts. I’m not opposed to a Kong movie without dinosaurs, but Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ stated reasoning behind the decision truly upset me. He said in part:

“The first mandate for me was ‘No dinosaurs.’ Jurassic World owns that as far as I’m concerned.”

My initial gut reaction: “What!?!?!?”

Seriously, let that sink in: No dinosaurs because “Jurassic World owns that”….

Really? Since when does the Jurassic franchise have the sole rights to feature dinosaurs on the silver screen? Leave aside for the moment that I thoroughly disliked Jurassic World (a mediocre-at-best film that doesn’t hold a candle to the original Jurassic Park); why should Jurassic World be the only show in town?

That logic simply doesn’t apply to any other film genre. Star Wars and Star Trek are among the most successful franchises in history, yet original sci-fi movies set in outer space are released all the time. The runaway success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not prevented Warner Bros./DC Comics and 20th Century Fox from releasing superhero films of their own. The massive popularity of the “James Bond” series has not stopped the proliferation of spy movies. Disney, with its massive media empire and seemingly bottomless wallet has not cornered the market on animated musicals. Why then, should Jurassic World have a monopoly on the “dinosaur movie,” a genre with a long and storied history dating back to before the original King Kong? It just doesn’t make sense.

In fact, it strikes me as odd why Hollywood would shy away from making more dinosaur movies. Dinosaurs are as popular now as they’ve ever been. New species are being discovered and described on a monthly basis. New research is giving us insights into the life appearance and behavior of dinosaurs that would have been considered pure fantasy even a few decades ago!  Jurassic World, despite all its many flaws, made over $1.6 billion! Clearly there is still a huge audience for dinosaur movies, and Hollywood would be foolish not to tap into that market. Of course, I want future dinosaur movies to be well made and to strive for as much scientific accuracy as possible, but is that really so much to ask? (As an aside, try scrolling through Netflix sometime just to look at all the crappy, low-budget, dreck-of-the-internet dinosaur movies that are out there. It’s kind of depressing…) The time for a greater variety of dinosaurs in media is now! Jurassic World missed a brilliant opportunity to introduce the public to some of the weird and wonderful new dinosaurs discovered in the two decades since Jurassic Park. Instead, the filmmakers decided to (mostly) reuse the same few species we’ve seen time and again (I’m talking to you, T. rex and Velociraptor!). Now Kong: Skull Island has passed on this same opportunity.

I hope that this idea of a Jurassic World monopoly on dinosaur movies is not widespread among directors or movie studios. Perhaps the planned 2018 JW sequel will create some more interest in revitalizing the genre. In the meantime, I’m still looking forward to the return of Kong, “The Eighth Wonder of the World” in a few short weeks. See you at the movies!

 

Sharing the Skies with Giants: A Cat-Sized Pterosaur Sheds New Light on the Last Days of the Flying Reptiles

As paleontologists know all too well, the fossil record is notoriously patchy and incomplete. Given the rigors of the fossilization process it’s a near-miracle that much of anything is preserved at all. While paleontologists have been able to resolve the diversity of flora and fauna in prehistoric ecosystems with increasing clarity in recent years, we’re still looking at the prehistoric past through a glass darkly.

In the journal Royal Society Open Science, paleontologist and pterosaur specialist Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone and her colleagues Mark Witton, Victoria Arbour, and Phil Currie describe some fragmentary pterosaur remains discovered on a beach on Hornby Island in British Columbia, Canada. While they’re not much to look at, these little fossil bones may indicate previously overlooked pterosaur diversity near the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

Hornby azhdarchoid PR web res ©Mark Witton 2016 (1)
Life reconstruction of the “Hornby pterosaur” by Mark Witton.

First some context.

Pterosaurs were a group of flying reptiles closely related to dinosaurs, living alongside them and dominating the skies for approximately 165 million years from the late Triassic Period all the way to the end of the Cretaceous. They finally became extinct in the same event that wiped all of the non-bird dinosaurs. Pterosaurs were an amazingly successful group of animals. They were the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight, and diversified into a stunning array of forms of various sizes and lifestyles.

By the mid-Jurassic about 150 million years ago, the early ancestors of birds evolved from small, feathered predatory dinosaurs. As beautifully preserved specimens from fossil-rich localities in China have shown, true birds appeared by the Early Cretaceous 50 million years later, undergoing rapid diversification. Around the same time, we see the pterosaur fossil record start to become dominated by mid-to-large-bodied forms, with smaller species disappearing almost entirely. By the end of the Late Cretaceous (about 83-66 million years ago) the dominant group of pterosaurs were the azhdarchids. This family includes such giants as Hatzegopteryx, Arambourgiania and Quetzalcoatlus (a species made famous as the “Skybax” of James Gurney’s Dinotopia books). These magnificent creatures dwarfed any flying animal either before or since. When standing on the ground, these enormous pterosaurs could have looked a giraffe in the eye, and they possessed wingspans of up to 30 feet – rivaling that of a small airplane! Truly nothing like them exists in the world today.

To explain the conspicuous absence of small pterosaur species from the Late Cretaceous, and the simultaneous rise to prominence of the azhdarchids, some paleontologists have hypothesized that birds simply out-competed smaller pterosaurs for habitat and resources, replacing them as the dominant small-bodied flying vertebrates. It’s further reasoned that only larger-bodied pterosaurs could survive in the face of increased avian competition.

This is where the new discovery from Canada comes in. As stated before, these fossils aren’t very glamorous, consisting of a partial humerus (upper arm bone), some vertebrae including from the notarium (a fusion of vertebrae and shoulder elements), and a few unidentifiable scrappy bits. The fact that all these little bones were found together in the same nodule of matrix is a pretty good indicator that they all come from the same animal. These remains are still far too fragmentary to officially describe and name them as a novel species, but enough diagnostic characters (unique traits), were preserved for Martin-Silverstone and her teammates to confidently ID them as a pterosaur. In fact, several features lead the researchers to suspect that this diminutive animal was likely an azhdarchid, although the evidence is not conclusive on this point. At the very least, it was closely related to the azhdarchids, possibly belonging to a larger clade (grouping of related species) called azhdarchoids.

What’s more, analysis of the internal structure of the bones and the fusion of the vertebrae indicate that this individual was a late-stage juvenile or subadult when it died, and had very little growing left to do. Rather than being a giraffe-sized monstrosity like it’s kin, this dainty little azhdarchoid would likely have been no larger than a house cat.

Hornby azhdarchoid size PR web res res ©Mark Witton 2016 (1)
Face off: The “Hornby pterosaur” compared to a house cat. Image by Mark Witton. From Martin-Silverstone, et al. (2016).

While it is true that small-bodied pterosaur species have long appeared to be absent from the Late Cretaceous, one important fact to keep in mind is that the remains of hatchlings and juveniles of the medium-sized and giant pterosaur species are also unknown from this time period. They must have existed, yet they are rarely preserved. Martin-Silverstone and her colleagues contend that the reason we don’t find small pterosaur species from the Late Cretaceous is not because they didn’t exist; they simply haven’t been preserved.

To understand why, we need look no further than the nature of the fossilization process itself. After an animal dies, its carcass must be buried by sediment relatively quickly if it’s to stand a chance of becoming a fossil. The longer the body remains exposed to scavengers, bacteria, and the elements, the more remote its odds become. Some creatures are simply far less likely to enter the fossil record than others. This is especially true of smaller vertebrates with fragile and lightweight bones. Paleontologists can thus be given an incomplete or inaccurate view of the diversity of plants and animals in a prehistoric ecosystem. This phenomenon is called preservation bias.

In the Triassic and Jurassic, pterosaurs seemed to favor shallow marine environments that were conducive to quick burial and subsequent fossilization. But in the Cretaceous, the azhdarchids appeared to have preferred more inland habitat, where the chances of a small, delicately-boned animal being fossilized were more remote. Thus what paleontologists observe in the Late Cretaceous pterosaur record has been distorted by a preferential bias towards the preservation of large, adult individuals. However, it is also possible that museum collections contain the remains of small-bodied Late Cretaceous pterosaurs that have been overlooked or misidentified as birds or small dinosaurs.

Now, not all paleontologists are completely convinced that this specimen represents a pint-sized azhdarchoid or even a pterosaur, for that matter. And given the fragmentary nature of these remains that’s understandable. Healthy skepticism is key to how science operates. Hopefully, now that fossil hunters have a better idea what to be on the lookout for, corroborating evidence, in the form of more complete specimens will be uncovered in the near future from the field or from museum collections. If that happens then this tantalizing little creature might be formally described and its name added to the roll of Mesozoic life.

Note: If you’d like to dig deeper into the primary research behind this fascinating discovery or to see photographs of the fossils themselves, I highly encourage you to check out Martin-Silverstone and colleagues’ technical paper. It is available open access (free to read) and I’ve provided a link in the references below.

References:

Martin-Silverstone E, Witton MP, Arbour VM, Currie PJ. A small azhdarchoid pterosaur from the latest Cretaceous, the age of flying giantsR. Soc. open sci3: 160333

Witton, Mark. “New Paper: at last, a small pterosaur species from the latest Cretaceous.” Web blog post, 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.