Critter of the Week: Pterodactylus

Meet Terry. She’s a chipper little flyer who would love to scramble up onto your shoulder and nibble your ear (just a little nibble, it tickles).  And could she please, pretty please have a tiny bit of that sandwich?

Terry update

Terry always likes a snack, especially small morsels like snails, grubs, and worms she digs up.  That sandwich looks quite tempting though, and she won’t turn her nose up at an opportunity to snatch it out of your hand, so keep an eye and a firm hold on it. 😀 Continue reading

Critter of the Week: Pterodactylus

Meet Terry. She’s a chipper little flyer who would love to scramble up onto your shoulder and nibble your ear (just a little nibble, it tickles).  And could she please, pretty please have a tiny bit of that sandwich?


Terry always likes a snack, especially small morsels like snails, grubs, and worms she digs up.  That sandwich looks quite tempting though, and she won’t turn her nose up at an opportunity to snatch it out of your hand, so keep an eye and a firm hold on it. 😀

She might not look it, but this little pterosaur (not dinosaur), is very good at walking and running around on the ground.  She spends a lot of her time poking her sensitive snout in the dirt for all sorts of burrowing creepy crawlies.  When she feels one, she nabs it with her tiny teeth and gulps it down.  Yum! Continue reading

Critter of the Week: Rhamphorhynchus

Meet Ron. He’s the flying ace.  He’ll swoop from the sky, dive into the water, and swim anywhere for a shiny fish. 🙂


Rrr- just how do you pronounce that?  I wasn’t 100% sure on that myself, so I looked it up on Youtube…

There, mystery solved. 🙂  I wonder if there’s one for all the really hard paleo-critter names out there.  I may have to include something like this from now on until I figure out a better system.

Oh, and before you ask, yes, there is evidence that pterosaurs can swim. 🙂 Ron here seems to spend most of his time in water, which might be why we have so many perfect fossils of this little guy. 🙂

He’s fast though.  It took a whole bucket of fish to entice him to come over for a quick chat.

And there he goes!  Ah well, if you want to know more about these guys, I know a pretty awesome blog post written by the great pterosaur expert, Mark Witton.  It has lots of pretty pictures too!

Making progress…

Drumroll please… Continue reading

Which One is the Dinosaur?

When it comes to prehistoric critters, it can be real easy to point at any large, scaly beast and call it a dinosaur.  But there are a lot of prehistoric critters that were not dinosaurs, even during their heyday.  In fact, dinosaurs are only a small fraction of the animals that walked around during the “Age of Reptiles”.


Unfortunately, sometimes even “educational” books and movies will lump in the other critters in the same group as the dinosaurs.  So how can you tell which is which?

Let’s have some fun with a little quiz. Can you tell me which critters are the dinosaurs, and which ones aren’t?

First off, a handy dandy dino checklist. 

  • Dinosaur hips make for straight, sturdy legs under their bodies, just like mammals.  Unlike other reptiles that walk with legs splayed out, dinos tend to walk with one foot in front of the other, just like we do.
  • Dinosaurs all lived in the Mesozoic period up to the present day.  Birds, of course, can be seen outside your kitchen window.  All other dinosaurs, or non-avian (not-bird) dinosaurs, appeared in the Triassic, reigned all through the Jurassic, and met their end at the Cretaceous.
  • All Dinosaurs share the same latest common ancestor- the great-great-great-grandaddy of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus.  Iguanodon is a giant, spike-thumbed plant-eater from Cretaceous England.  Megalosaurus is a meat-eating distant cousin of T-rex, from Jurassic England.


Fun Fact on that last one:

Sir Richard Owen coined the name Dinosauria based on Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus (a plant-eater built like an armored tank, but without the club-tail of more popular armored dinos.  Cretaceous England).

All three of these critters can still be seen today at the Crystal Palace in London, where sculptures were built based on the latest scientific knowledge of the 19th century.  It’s in a sad state compared to the grandeur of its golden years, but it’s still on my bucket list. 😀

Dinosauria is often translated from the Greek as “Terrible Lizard”, but it can also translate to “Fearfully Great Reptile”.  Owen seems to have named the creatures based on their awesome size and how majestic they must’ve looked in life.  Not on their “terrible” teeth, spikes, and claws.

Now that you know the features that make a dinosaur, let’s get started! 😀  I’ll leave the answers for the very end, so that you can test yourself.


First up, Bowser the Ceratosaurus!  He’s big, and lived in Jurassic North America.  He has a nice beefy tail with the muscle power to move his legs forward, one foot in front of the other.


Plesiosaurus_not dino.jpg


Look who’s come out of hiding…Nessie the Plesiosaurus!  Those flippers are great for gliding through shallow Jurassic seas or paddling in murky rivers.  You’ll find her swimming around in Jurassic England.



Here comes Bella the Camarasaurus!  She’s a big girl, and proud of it, but she has no problem moving all that weight around.  Her legs are like pillars, strong and sturdy under her body.  You can find her in Jurassic North America.


dimetrodon_not dino.jpgWhy hello there, Dan the Dimetrodon is here for a special visit.  He came by all the way from Permian North America, an earlier time than the Triassic period.


Twig the Compsognathus is a little guy, only as big as a turkey, but that just means he’s extra fast.  He runs like a roadrunner, and easily snatches up splay-legged lizards.  You can find him in Jurassic Germany.

(quick note: there are rumors of scale patches on the legs and tail for this little guy, but I haven’t been able to find the papers describing them.  So I’ve given him feathers based on a close cousin.)


Flipper the Ichthyosaurus comes in with a splash! But what is he?  You can find him cruising Asian and European waters during the Triassic and Jurassic periods.



Tango the Archaeopteryx loves to sing and dance, and no lizard can dance like Tango can!  He’s got the finesse of a duck and the enthusiasm of a parakeet.  You can find him and his fancy feathers in Jurassic Germany.



Here comes Tigger the Pliosaurus with a big grin.  An apex predator in the water, this big guy would’ve made the Jurassic seas around Europe and South America a dangerous place to be.



Are those…Turkeys?  Why yes, yes they are.  They’re showing off their festive plumage by strutting with one foot in front of the other.  You probably see one at your dinner table on occasion.

Rhamphorynchus_not dino.jpg

Ron the Rhamphorynchus has dropped by to see you.  Those teeth look a bit vicious, but he’s just an excitable fuzzball really.  You can find him soaring through the Jurassic skies in Germany.


Think you got them all?  Let’s check and see!

  • Bowser the Ceratosaurus is a dinosaur!  He stands upright with his legs under his body, he’s a theropod (who were the theropod dinosaurs?), and he lived during the Jurassic period- the middle of the Mesozoic era.
  • Nessie the Plesiosaurus is not a dinosaur!  She lived at the same time as many dinosaurs, and she’s big and scaly, so I can understand why she’s often thrown into the pile. She’s a marine reptile called a plesiosaur, and she’s actually the first discovered, so she got to name the whole group!
  • Bella the Camarasaurus is a dinosaur!  She stands tall and straight on legs like pillars, and she lived in about the same time and place as Bowser.
  • Dan the Dimetrodon is not a dinosaur!  Dan is quite a few million years too early, with the biggest mass extinction in Earth’s history between him and dinosaurs.  But if you don’t know what time he’s from, then you can see that his legs are sticking out like a croc, instead of underneath his body.  But he’s not a croc either.  He’s a synapsid.  Mostly that’s a fancy term about the skull.  I’ll get to that when I’m working on the Permian period. 😀  That said, I totally get why people would think it’s a dinosaur.  I mean, it’s everywhere!  It’s even on my kids’ favorite oatmeal, y’know the one with the hatching dinosaur eggs?
  • Flipper the Ichthyosaurus is not a dinosaur!  He’s also not a fish, dolphin, or prehistoric whale.  He’s a marine reptile called an Ichthyosaur, and he was the first of his kind discovered, so he got to be the namesake of his group.  Since the name translates to “fish lizard” or “fish reptile”, then there’s no surprise when people call him one.  The reason he looks like a dolphin is because the fishy/dolphin/shark body plan is so perfect.  For an animal that is born, lives, and dies in water, then his body shape is perfect.

Fun fact: Plesiosaurus was given that name because her kind is “nearer to dinosaurs” than Ichthyosaurs like Flipper.

  • Tango the Archaeopteryx is a dinosaur!  Few deny the birdiness of this critter.  Where some people get confused is the dinosaurness of birds…but this little guy is a lovely mix of both.  But now you’re getting to know the drill.  Feet underneath the body and supporting his weight.  Jurassic period, “golden age” of dinos…etcetera, etcetera… 🙂
  • Tigger the Pliosaurus is not a dinosaur!  It’s starting to look like there are no swimming dinosaurs. There are always exceptions to the rule of course *cough*Spinosaurus*cough*, but in general, you don’t really see dinosaurs getting specialized for a life in water.  Tigger is another that gets to name his own group.  The Pliosaurs.  They were marine reptiles that thrived in the Jurassic and into the Cretaceous, but died out alongside the dinosaurs.
  • A Turkey is a dinosaur! Yes, when you sit down for that turkey sandwich, or prepare for that Thanksgiving feast, you are about to eat a dinosaur.  All birds are members of the theropod group (take a look at Bowser up there).  Want more info?  I’ve got a post on birds over here.
  • Ron the Rhamphorynchus is not a dinosaur! Like the marine reptiles, his kind lived at the same time, and so are always being tossed onto the same pile.  Ron is a Pterosaur, a flying reptile that is actually in the same family tree as crocs and dinosaurs, but not so close that he’s mixed in with the dinosaurs.  Pterosaurs were usually pretty good at walking, but they didn’t have the same hip as dinos.


How did you do?  If you didn’t do very well, don’t feel too bad.  There’s a lot of misinformation out there, even from sources that are supposed to be educational.  And really, it’s a lot easier just to call them all dinosaurs, instead of having to remember all the different names for the different groups.  🙂

Quick Question:  What’s your biggest source of info about dinosaurs?  Jurassic Park?  The news?  Dino obsessed friend or kid?  Your own research?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!  😀

To Feather or Not to Feather Your Dinosaur, That is the Question.

Every time I turn a corner, there’s a new feathered dinosaur to join the line up of “enfluffened” critters.  T-rex, Velociraptor, Gallimimus…iconic dinosaurs from movies like Jurassic Park have bonified proof of some sort of floof covering their bodies.  Even the plant eaters are getting floofy with critters like Hypsolophodon and Kulindadromeous.


Don’t get me wrong, I love feathery dinosaurs, and I’m a pretty big fan of a huge, fluffy, grizzly-hawk T-rex (that’s just epic 😀 ).

But sometimes artists can take this idea a little too far.  “Woolly” Arctic ceratopsians (“three-horns” & cousins), and spike-tailed stegosaurus with porcupine quills is going a bit far on the speculation even for me.

There’s a fine line between reasonable speculation, and downright fantasy.

But let’s pause for just a moment.  I know that a lot of paleoart is speculative, a way of illustrating hypotheses proposed by paleontologists, but there’s also a surprising amount of stuff we do know.

What I mean to say is…

The stuff you see in paleoart is not some wild guess, and just because the critters are long dead doesn’t mean anything goes.  I’ve described the process of reconstructing prehistoric critters in my blog post series, Fleshing Out the Bones.  You can click this link to read more on that if you’re interested.

So how do you decide if you’ll give your dinosaur feathers or scales?

“Butterfly!”  Silly Alfred is just going to get worn out.  He’s about the size of the young Allosaurus described below.  About 12 feet long from nose to tail-tip.

Let’s take Allosaurus and my illustrations of Alfred as an example.  How do I know if he should be covered in feathers or scales?

Step 1: What’s the evidence?

Are there any fossils of skin impressions or feathers?  In Alfred’s case, yes, yes there is. 😀 I don’t know if there are any published papers on this, but here’s a link that describes the preserved skin on a juvenile Allosaurus.  It was discovered during preparation of the fossil.

Based on the fossil, the young Allosaurus had small scales about 2-3 mm in diameter.  So tiny, pebble-like, non-overlapping scales, rather like the sort you see on gila monsters and monitor lizards.

“Yo, ‘sup?”

But What if I didn’t Have Fossil Evidence?  And for some, a patch of skin in one part of the body is not enough.  Afterall, in some dinosaurs you get quite the mixture of feathers and scales.  Compsognathus, for example, has close relatives with evidence of “full floof”, but the critter itself has scale impressions on its tail and legs.

Step 2: Look at Their Relatives. 

Like we just did with Compsognathus up there, we can look at close relatives in the same family to figure out the scale/feather thing.  In the case of the compy, the possibilities can get even more confusing, but let’s go back to Alfred.

If you go back to last week’s post on Theropods, you’ll see that Allosaurus is in the family Carnosauria.  One rather infamous member of this group is Concavenator.  It has what looks like quill knobs on its arms, which in modern birds are small bumps on the bone where ligaments for flight feathers attach.

The “quill nobs” of Concavenator are a subject of much discussion.  Duane Nash has a particularly interesting interpretation over at his blog, Antediluvian Salad.  I’m not a fan of how monstrous he illustrated the poor critter, since I tend to see the beauty even in Earth’s homeliest of creatures, but the article is a very interesting read, and I’d recommend you check it out. 🙂

Step 3: Where is it in the Family Tree?

Pterosaurs are about as closely related to dinosaurs as alligators and crocodiles are.  Neither are dinosaurs, but they’re all in a much larger group called Archosauria.

Because of this relationship, it’s a pretty big deal if the fuzzy pycnofibers on pterosaurs are the same as the fur-like fluff on certain dinosaurs (like Compsognathus & cousins).

Why?  Because it’s much simpler to assume that the great-grandmother of dinosaurs & pterosaurs had the fuzzy feathery fluff.

Much more complicated to assume that dinosaurs & pterosaurs developed the same fuzzy feathery fluff each on their own.

What’s easier?  Learning with a friend from a teacher, or each of you studying on your own?  Not exactly the same, I know, but I think you get my drift. 🙂

With this in mind, let’s see where Alfred is on the family tree, and how far away he is from the main branch or outlying branches.

Image not my own. Cladogram copyright to Tom Holtz. Sourced from the University of Maryland Department of Geology website.

Alfred is on the branch labeled Carnosauria.  This is quite a ways away from the base of the branch, with many critters in between that are known to be scaly.  So feathers from that direction are very unlikely.

Once proof of scales appears we don’t see any real evidence of feathers until we get to the branch labeled Coelurosauria.

Final Verdict: Allosaurus is More Likely to Have Scales, Based on Current Knowledge.

So what would that look like?  The scales are small and non-overlapping in our sample, so let’s look at Komodo Dragons and Monitor lizards. 😀

“Nothin’ better than a warm rock on a sunny day…Zzzz” – Komodo Dragon
“Hey.  Nice day ain’ it?” – Komodo Dragon.
“Hi! You wouldn’t have a snack handy would’ya?” – Monitor Lizard

Bonus Question: With this research, I think Alfred could use a bit of a makeover!  What would you prefer to see?

  • A much needed nap after chasing that butterfly
  • Curious Alfred is curious
  • Is that the dinner bell?
  • Playtime!

Which scenario should I use to revamp his profile picture?  I’d love to hear your answer in the comments! 🙂

The Art & Science of Terry

Hi there!  Terry is here with us today, a rather odd looking critter isn’t she?  If I asked you to tell me what she is, what would your answer be?  Flying dinosaur?  Terradactyl?  Pterosaur?




If you said Pterosaur then clearly you’ve done your homework.  If not, don’t feel bad (I’m not pointing fingers), because the sad fact is that most books, movies, toys, and pretty much anything to do with dinosaurs always lump Terry and her many relatives into the same pile.

Terry is a Pterosaur (Don’t mind the P there, it’s confusingly silent), a group of flying reptiles closely related to dinosaurs.  To be specific, her wild cousins are Pterodactylus kochi.  Pterodactylus is the pterosaur, where we get the name for the whole group.  So now you know she’s special. 😀


1. Is that…fur?

Terry, like all pterosaurs, is covered in a fuzzy layer of pycnofibers.  They’re made of the same keratinous proteins as our hair and fingernails.  But they appear to be hollow inside, which makes them much more like feathers than fur.

I say “appear to be”, because not everyone agrees.  Most of the fossils are a bit squashed, and even the 3d fossils can be hard to tell if what fills the space inside was part of the living animal or just more of the fossil (or a part of decomposition after the critter died, but before it fossilized).

Last week we saw the basic structure of a feather.  If pycnofibers are indeed hollow, then that could mean that they are similar in structure to feathers.

Terry and her many relatives are related to dinosaurs in the same way that crocs are related to dinosaurs (They are all Archosaurs).  A bit like a great aunt.

Since many dinosaurs are known to have feathers of various kinds, it would be pretty significant if pterosaur pycnofibers are determined to be feathers as well.

How significant?  More fluffy dinosaurs!  It’s possible that the earliest dinosaurs had a coat of fur-like feathers. 🙂


2. Hard Beak or Fuzzy Snout?

fuzzy beak copy.jpg
Terry & Ron are both pterosaurs, but look very different from each other.  Fuzzy snout vs. hard beak.  The difference in texture of fluffy pycnofibers is my own speculation.  We don’t really know what these might’ve looked like in life.

Now I’m not quite sure where I first heard of the idea of hard-beaked pterosaurs…I think I remember Petrie from The Land Before Time had a beak.  Come to think of it, I guess there are plenty of interpretations with beaky pterosaurs, but I’m not sure how many are based on fossil evidence.

So why does Terry have a soft, fuzzy snout?

The fossils don’t have a beak.  In fact, in several beautifully preserved ones we see only soft tissues, complete with a soft crest and that lappet on the back of head.  There’s a lovely diagram showing how clear the fossil is over at Mark Witton’s wonderful blog.  I’d highly recommend you check it out, because he’s an excellent artist, and an expert on all things pterosaur. 🙂

Terry’s friend on the left is a Rhamphorynchus (that’s a mouthful, sorry, let’s call him…Ron).  Some illustrate Ron and his wild relatives with just the toothless tip of his snout with a beak, but I’ve based mine off of Mark Witton’s lovely illustration.

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine those crazy teeth with any kind of soft tissue, and that seems to be the argument for a hard beak over the bone.


3. The original pole vaulting masters


Pterosaurs had powerful wings, but their legs weren’t really strong enough to jump up to fly like birds.  So does that mean they’re helpless on the ground?

Not at all, look at Terry scamper around!

Pterosaurs were Earth’s first pole vaulting masters.  Their powerful wing-arms were strong enough to push their bodies (even the biggest ones) up into the air.  Mark Witton proposes that even the largest, giraffe-sized pterosaurs could lift off from the ground.  Many could probably take off from the water!

Helpless?  I think, not. 🙂  Here’s a quick video so you can see it in action. 🙂

How is it possible?

Unlike birds, pterosaurs have most of their muscle dedicated to their wings.  Birds need enough muscle in their legs to jump up before flapping, while pterosaurs pole vault into the air with the same power they use for flying.

So no need to jump off a cliff or wait for warm updrafts of air. 🙂


Quick Question: Ah, the nostalgia of so many movies and documentaries…I must say I still rather like the leathery, cliff-clinging bats in Fantasia (so many great retro-saurs in that one).  Are there any pterosaurs from books or movies that have colored how you see these animals? 🙂  I’d love to hear your answer in the comments!  

P.S.- You can always hop over the the A&S page to pick out who you want to see next! 🙂