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Nemicolopterus crypticus: A baby pterosaur, or just small?

Size: 10 inches (25 centimeters) from wingtip to wingtip.

Time Period: The Aptian stage of the Early Cretaceous Period.

Locale: The Jiufotang Formation of China.

Name: The generic name means “forest-dwelling wing,” in reference to the animal’s presumed forest habitat. The specific name means “hidden.”

Pterosaurs astonish us humans because they were strange prehistoric creatures that lived in the sky. They looked a bit like birds, but were incredibly foreign in comparison to our feathered friends. Most astonishing of all is the size of some pterosaurs. Animals like Hatzegopteryx and Aerotitan grew to sizes never seen in other flying animals. However, not all pterosaurs were as huge and macho as the azhdarchids. Some were pretty tiny.

One such “ptiny pterosaur” is Nemicolopterus, a Chinese pterodactyloid that is currently identified as the smallest pterosaur of all. However, there might not be as much truth to this as you’d think. The fossil specimen is actually smaller than any (excepting a choice few) hatchling pterosaur, but it isn’t fully grown. Darren Naish has argued that, since pterosaurs are able to be out and about from an early age, bone fusion and ossification can occur very quickly. Factoring this into our catalog of Jiufotang faunal assemblages, we can guess that Nemicolopterus may be a hatchling of the genus Sinopterus, a decently sized tapejarid from the same area. 

All that discussion aside, there are some concrete conclusions to be made about this little fellow. Nemicolopterus is toothless, and may be an intermediate between the ornithocheiroids and dsungaripteroids. Though Nemicolopterus isn’t the best representative of its relatives’ size, some of its relatives may have evolved into the aforementioned macho pterosaurs (such as Aerotitan).

We can also confidently assert that we know just about where Nemicolopterus lived. Since this pterosaur demonstrates adaptions for grasping tree branches, it may have hunted for insects and lived in the canopy of a forest. Though most pterosaurs are known from marine sediments, and would have probably caught fish in the sea and landed on nearby structures to eat and mate, it’s clear that Nemicolopterus was found in the continental interior of its area, making it one of the few pterosaurs known to live in such a habitat. Other inland pterosaurs include Quetzalcoatlus, a “Ptexan pterosaur” whose inland habitat was originally given as evidence that it was a vulture-like scavenger. Tapejaridae, the family that Sinopterus (Nemicolopterus’s presumed adult version) belongs to, also shows similar adaptions despite the fact that some were marine.

So, though Nemicolopterus may have only been a juvenile specimen of Sinopterus, it’s still interesting. It might make us reconsider our phylogenetic assignments of other small pterosaurs, and it is one of the few inland pterosaurs discovered thus far. As we have piece together the puzzle of pterosaur “ptylogeny (okay, I tried),” we find that a bit more investigation may be required to correctly determine the identity of some flying reptiles, even our forest-dwelling pal.

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Genus: Pterodaustro

…an extinct genus of pterodactyloid pterosaurs that lived in Early Cretaceous South America. This genus is noted for its tooth comb, which means it likely waded in water and filter fed like modern flamingos. It probably mashed hard crustaceans with its small teeth on its upper jaw. It was once thought that Pterodaustro was pink due to its diet like a flamingo, however recent studies show that only members of Neoaves can absorb those pigments and it was unlikely that any pterosaur was pink. Analysis of Pterodaustro’s  scleral rings indicate that it might have been nocturnal and it might have lived like nocturnal anseriform birds.

Phylogeny

Animalia-Chordata-Reptilia-Pterosauria-Ctenochasmatidae-Ctenochasmatinae-Pterodaustro

Images: Mark Witton and Gadfium

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Aerotitan sudamericanus: Air Nomads.

Size: Though it’s too fragmentary to definitely ascertain this animal’s size, its wingspan was probably at least 16.4 feet (5 meters) in width.

Time Period: The Early Maastrichtian Stage of the Late Cretaceous Period.

Locale: The Allen Formation of Argentina, a place that was also home to Willinakaqe and Austroraptor, the former of which has been covered on this blog.

Name: The generic name means ‘air titan,’ thanks to this animal’s large size and airborne lifestyle. The specific name means ‘of South America,’ because Aerotitan was found in South America.

I’ve mentioned that animals such as Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx are macho pterosaurs. These huge creatures were very interesting and were probably also threatening. Here, I report a fairly new one, and the first confirmed azhdarchid from South America, Aerotitan.

This creature is known only from a rostrum, or the part of the head at the end of the beak. It was a toothless animal, and probably had a spearlike beak like its fellow azhdarchids. Its snout was very long and compressed transversely. The animal, like Hatzegopteryx and company, was a semi-terrestrial predator that lived much like a modern-day stork.

The real subject of this post isn’t about Aerotitan itself, it’s about it and the many other azhdarchid taxa that have been assigned. These animals all looked very similar, and are known from similar and fragmentary evidence. This makes me question just how many of these animals were distinct taxa. Here, I propose the theory that, since azhdarchids were such large flying creatures, they could fly from continent to continent and colonize the world without being very distinct taxa. Though this is a bit Paulian in a sense (and I don’t like lumping a bunch of taxa into a genus no matter how convenient it is), this large amount of taxa has always seemed a bit questionable to me. Though I could be wrong, it’s always a little bit tricky to assign taxa.

So, though Aerotitan seems like a distinct taxa, I’ve nursed my misgivings about it for a while now. The truth is, most of the azhdarchids can’t be definitely grouped outside of a single genus. Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx, for example, aren’t distinct save for their locations on the globe. Though research might or might not prove me wrong, I can still have my opinion.

Note: I’m sorry that this post is so short. It’s hard to blog about such a poorly-known taxon.

The azhdarchid survivor of the K-T extinction event, and the common ancestor of the neoazhdarchids, pictured here next to the corpse of its larger relatives of the skies. It and creatures like it live on islands throughout the Americas and Europe. It has limited aquatic abilities and is omnivorous. It is a hardy survivor with limited nutritional needs. It would spread and give rise to the dominant megafauna of the cenozoic. 

This K-T extinction event killed different species than in OTL. Why some species survived OTL and others didn’t may have just come down to blind luck. The enantiornithines survived in greater numbers than their neoornithine cousins. Due to their restricted flight ability though, they would be outcompeted in the sky and become a vital part of the Cenozoic terrestrial fauna, diversifying just as the neoazhdarchids did

Mammals were hit harder than in OTL and, while still there, would not play as big of a role as in our world. They would still be relegated to burrows as archosaurs—birds, pterosaurs, and crocodylians, once more dominated the earth.

Speculative Evolution Concept: Ankha (Numenodraco lupofaciem)

Reaching a wingspan of 10 meters, the Ankha (also known as Sky Tyrant, Emperor Dragon/Wyvern or Baiheitianlung) is the largest volant non-pterodactyloid pterosaur ever known, and easily one of the largest flying vertebrates to have ever existed. At such a size, and being a specialised, migratory or nomadic soarer to boot, geographical barriers mean very little to it, and it can in fact be found all across the world’s landmasses, though only occuring rarely or even being completely absent from some remote islands. The Ankha is obviously present in most terrestrial habitats, but preffers open spaces like grasslands, or alpine environments.


The Ankha is a massive campylognathoidid* pterosaur, magnitudes of size larger than its closest known relatives and indeed all living flying vertebrates. It bears a thick black dorsal and facial pelage, a peach underside (throat and torso) and eye patches, grey wing membrane uppersides with white dots that become more common dystally (in some individual, the wingtip uppersides are entirely white), orange/gold wing membrane undersides and red tail vanes. It possesses a pair of “ears” or “horns” made from bristle-like pycnofibers - similar to the “ears” of eagle owls, albeit wider and attached right above the eyes -, but otherwise it possesses no extravagant head ornament. Its snout is covered by pycnofibers, some of which specialised as large vibrissae, which combined with the “raptor” like snape of the jaws, gives it as a distinctively canine-esque appearence.

The Ankha is the sole member of its “genus”, which genetic analyses place as the basalmost member of Cynoptera (“sky hounds”), having diverged from its relatives somewhere in the Late Miocene, 8-12 million years ago. Two extinct relatives, N. aquiloculus and N. insularis, are known from the Late Miocene (-7 mya) to the Early Pleistocene of North America and the Caribbean, respectively, the clade as a whole seemingly having evolved in South America, from where hails a palaeosubspecies, N. l. minor**, known from across the Pliocene to the early Calabrian stage of the Pleistocene. All of these animals are substantially smaller than the Ankha, with N. aquiloculus reaching a maximum wingspan of 3 meters, N. insularis of 5 meters and N. l. minor of 4.5 meters. The Ankha first evolved in the early Pleistocene, its increase in size possibly corresponding to the ecological vacuum left by sparassodonts and due to the global cooling and subsequent spread of open habitats. By the Calabrian, it had spread worldwide and replaced its closest relatives as well as several other giant carnivorous pterosaurs.

Hailing from a lineage of pterosaurs with raptorial tendencies dating all the way back to the Jurassic, the Ankha is a formidable macropredator, having further specialised in the art of being an aerial killing machine and taking its place as an apex predator all across the globe. Campylognathoidids are well noted for their massive, powerful and robust wings, allowing them both the kind of aerial maneuverability and speed as other aerial killers like falcons and matiff bats as well as the raw power to carry proportionally large prey, traits further enhanched in Cynoptera, which saw the advent of forelimb pneumatisation as well a refinement of the cranial anatomy, developing longer, deeper jaws superficially similar to those of theropod dinosaurs such as dromaeosaurs as well as serrated teeth. In the Ankha, the jaws are broader and bulkier still, almost tyrannosaur-like in shape, though obviously more pneumatised with large fenestrae, and bear banana-shaped fangs; the hindlimbs are also pneumatised, a trait shared with pteranodontians.

Doted thus with speed and maneuverability as well as sheer power, the Ankha swoops down from the sky like a gigantic frigatebird or skua, opening its monstruous jaws to either kill small-to-mid size vertebrates with a single bite, swallowing them whole or carrying them off to tear them apart on the wing or in a roost, or to rip off chunks of flesh from large prey like elephants, slowly decarnating its victim to death; a variety of hunting strategies have been observed, like semi-coordinated efforts on the part of two or more individuals and taking advantage of the environment, such as throwing prey off cliffs. Suffice to say, the Ankha’s diet is extremely diverse, encompassing most of the world’s terrestrial megafauna: an individual hunting gazzelles in Africa may in the next week be eating guanacos in Argentina. Overall, it is a very flexible predator, seldomly displaying particular prefference other than towards the largest availiable target less likely to be lethal when fighting back, and its ability to fly allows it the chance to earch for new feeding grounds when prey stock is depleted.


As obvious, scavenging is also a very relevant part of the Ankha’s diet, particularly in juvenile animals, done if possible from the air, ripping chunks of flesh on the wing. Sometimes the pterosaur is forced to forage on the ground, to probe better into a carcasse or to hunt small prey on foot, something that leaves the animal rather vulnerable, since the campylognathoidid massive wings make taking off in terrestrial setting harder, a problem further not helped by the long tail. As such, the Ankha only willing lands in open terrains, in areas devoid of terrestrial predators large enough to pose a threat. When it faces a potential predator or competitor, the pterosaur hisses, flashing its “ears” and wagging its tail slowly like a cat. Even adult Ankha are vulnerable to big cats, bears, hyenas and other large terrestrial predators.


Ankha spend most of their lives in the air, seldomly touching the ground and flying on for weeks on end. They are nomadic and migratory, flying about all over the world but generally preffering northern latitudes during the warmer months of the northern hemisphere and southern latitudes during the inverse time of the year. Some individuals make punctual journeys, taking advantage of natural events like Serengeti migrations of the breeding periods of pinnipedes and seabirds. While rarely forming stable territories, Ankha are mostly solitary or form pairs, generally avoiding conflict by flying else but occasionally resorting to physical violence when focusing on a specific area, like favoured feeding grounds.


As most macropredators, the Ankha has a slow birth rate and breeds every two years. In most cases, these may be timely affairs, the animals gathering in specific areas, usually taking advantage of food sources, but in many individuals it is a more individual event. Either in mating colonies or in solitary horny moods, the Ankha starts by emiting an infrasound bellow, similar to that of a cassowary, punctuated by loud honking. When another individual approaches, or simply comes in sight for the most desperate, the pterosaur emits a disturbing laugh-like vocalisation, and starts flying around the intend partner, wagging the tail in order to flash the vanes. If the intended partner feels the same, it respond with the same vocalisation, and both animals fly close to each other, touching with other with the snouts while in the air. Mating may occur on the wing, but usually both partners land to do the deed. Both animals stay with each other for several weeks, travelling together and displaying affection, until they part, and may not see each other ever again.


Like most cynopterans, the Ankha is viviparous, and after a period pregnancy of around 120 days the female lands to give birth to four to six flaplings, proportionally rather large at a wingspan of 2.3 meters. Left to their own devices, the Ankha flaplings are already capable of tackling relatively large prey, and often tend to be the apex predators of their environments, as their mothers favour birthing in islands and other isolated places. Sexual maturity is reached at around 5 years of age, while full adult size comes around at 10.

* In this context, it’s Campylognathidae as defined by the most recent studies. As in, just Campylognathoides.


** The living subspecies can be reffered to as N. l. magnificens.

For a coastal species, there sure are very few illustrations of Pteranodon around coastal features. It’s always beaches and cliffs, which is why I decided to put these two in a sea cave, perhaps on an adventure of some sorts.

There are also woefully few images of purported female Pteranodon out there, all the attention seems to go to the larger, more spectacularly crested males, while the females are shoved into the background. This clearly doesn’t reflect nature, as female Pteranodon make up 2/3 of all Pteranodon specimens, so surely there should be a lot more of them showing up in palaeoart?

So to shake things up a little, here are two female Pteranodon, without a male in sight, exploring a sea cave.

Nyctosaurus sebulbai by Jaime A. Headden:

No, this isn’t a real animal.

Nyctosaurids are pterosaurs with incredibly long arms, but comparatively short feet. Darren Naish once speculated ([link]) that pterosaurs could attain flightless status in much the same ways as birds do, with reduction of the forelimbs and wing form, developing elongated hindlimbs in azhdarchid-like taxa and thus become giraffe or horse-like “quadrupedasaurs.” I wonder if the selection on the wings for form are so intensive this could ever happen. Indeed, it seems that it would be the feet first to go, the wings second, if ever. What if, instead, we got pterosaurs who walked with their wings, freeing their feet from locomotion?

(read more)

Symbiosis by ~Qilong:

Crocodilians today tend to be host to a good number of parasites, both endo- and ecto-. Of the ecto variety, you have ticks, fleas, and some other gruesome microscopic things that crocs usually might find uncomfortable. Thus is seems obvious that crocs should have ectoparasite feeders, animals that eat these parasites and “groom” them, just as fish, whales, sharks, and all sorts of mammals do today. Probably the most famous ectoparasite feeder today is the oxpecker, which travels around or follows oxen and other large savannah bovids in Africa, and similar birds in Eurasia and North America, and eats all the little crawlies in the fur and on the skin that frankly irritate the hell out of oxen.

Crocodiles, like some sharks and whales, go even further and allow feeders to come into their mouths without trying to eat them. Here, I am applying the idea to a pterosaur and a bird from the Jiufotang Formation of Liaoning, China, “middle” Cretaceous. The bird is Confuciusornis and the pterosaur is Feilongus. This has not been corroborated by precise information, but the presence of “hair” or “pterofuzz" in some pterosaurs argues that they, like birds and mammals, might be the homes of some ectoparasites. Birds take water- and dust baths and groom to rid themselves of these pests, but sometimes, maybe you can use a little help

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