Product has been added to the basket

Blessed are the toymakers

Darwinopterus …for they shall be palaeontologists too, says Dave Martill*

Geoscientist 20.6 June 2010

In 2003, the Geological Society, under the editorial guidance of Eric Buffetaut and Jean-Michel Mazin, issued Special Publication (217) Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs. This valuable tome is a collection of papers presented at the Toulouse meeting of 2001 celebrating 200 years of pterosaur research. I remember being excited about this meeting, as never before had so many pterosaur specialists been assembled in one place and had so many new discoveries to discuss.

At this time hardly anything was known of the fabulous Chinese pterosaur-bearing deposits; but the Brazilian Santana and Crato formations were yielding exciting new taxa and revealing many previously unknown aspects of pterosaur soft tissue anatomy. Dino Frey and I, with Marie-Céline Buchy announced to the world the discovery of a new genus and species of ornithocheirid we named Ludodactylus sibbicki. The specific epithet honours renowned palaeo-artist John Sibbick who has brought so many dinosaurs (and pterosaurs) alive for so many people; but the generic name is somewhat frivolous. Ludodactylus more or less translates to toy finger (ludo Gr. = game, plaything: dactyl L. = finger) and celebrates the animal’s predicted existence - by a toy manufacturer.

Toy pterosaur. This model was considered highly inaccurate. It sported a Pteranodon-like head crest but a mouthful of teeth. Ludodactylus has this. Furthermore, it has a long tail, Darwinopterus has this. What will be the next amazing discovery? Toy manufacturers are in the business of making money by entertaining. Some way down the list comes education - and a bit further down might come scientific accuracy. Pteranodon, the stereotypical giant, crested Late Cretaceous pterosaur of the Kansas chalk formations and star of numerous B movies (and A movies?) has always been a popular subject for model producers. But its lack of teeth has posed a bit of a problem; most manufacturers seem to think teeth are – if you will forgive me - essential selling points. For this reason it is not uncommon to find a ‘Pteranodon’ model bearing a full set of dentures.

However, our Ludodactylus not only had a Pteranodon-like head-crest, it also possessed a gnashing mouthful of the finest curved fangs anyone could ever wish for. We had, we realised, discovered the animal behind toymakers’ model, and had instantly vindicated their perceptive powers in one short paper. To celebrate these powers Frey et al. included a picture of the head of such a toy and, bless them, the editors didn’t reject it.

Ludodactylus sp. What we hadn’t realised was just how perceptive the toymakers were. Everybody knows that there were long-tailed pterosaurs (so-called ‘rhamphorhynchoids’) in the Triassic and Jurassic and short-tailed pterosaurs (pterodactyloids#) in the Late Jurassic and Cretaceous. But clearly, short-tailed pterodactyloids must have evolved from long-tailed ‘rhamphorhynchoids’. In deed they did, and last year Lü Junchang of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and David Unwin of Leicester University announced the discovery of a long-tailed pterodactyloid from the mid-late Jurassic Dhouagou Formation of China. This fabulous fossil was a ‘missing-link’ between these two pterosaur evolutionary grades and, being discovered in a Drwin bicentenary year was named Darwinopterus.

But this amazing fossil had also been predicted by the toymakers and I take this opportunity of again publishing a picture of the toy that was the harbinger of fossils to come (and now arrived). Notice, if you will, that the toothy Pteranodon sports a splendid ‘rhamphorhynchoid’ tail, complete with terminal vane.

If you have a model of a prehistoric animal that you have bought for your kids (or for your very own collection!) and have noticed an irritating inaccuracy, please, don’t scoff, or ridicule the toy maker, the fossil is in the ground just waiting to be discovered.

#The term “rhamphorhynchoid” is used here in quotation marks because it is a vernacular for a paraphyletic clade, whereas “pterodactyloid” is a vernacular for the monophyletic, and therefore true, clade Pterodactyloidea. So in conversation, when talking about ‘rhamphorhynchoids’ (as you do), always raise your hands, isolate two fingers on each hand and, as you say ‘rhamphorhynchoid’, waggle them like twitching rabbit ears.

* Dave Martill works at the University of Portsmouth