Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Pterosaurs by Mark Witton

Pterosaurs dominated the skies during the time of the dinosaurs. They were remarkably diverse creatures, from the size of a sparrow to giants as tall as a giraffe, and were by far the largest creatures ever to fly.

One of the tallest subgroups, known as the azhdarchids, stood as tall as giraffes.

Yet surprisingly, the scientific story of pterosaur anatomy, ecology, and extinction has not been told as thoroughly as has that of the dinosaurs.

A new book called Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy helps to fill the gap. It is published by Princeton University Press, the same publisher that produced The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw.

Mr. Witton is the ideal person to write such a book. He combines his deep knowledge of the subject as a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth (U.K.) with his skills as an artist, and he has a flair for informal but accurate writing. His 292-page book is the most comprehensive and authoritative book to come along since Peter Wellnhofer's classic Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs back in 1991.

The book contains about 200 illustrations, mostly in color. Typically Witton portrays each type in a side-view flying position at the bottom of the flap cylce. In most cases the color restoration is accompanied by a line drawing of the reconstructed skeleton in the same pose. There are also many fossil photographs, maps, diagrams, and full-environment restorations.

Witton's book covers general topics first, such as what we know and don't know about the skeletons, soft tissues, coloration, aerodynamics and behaviors. He then covers more than 130 species group by group, including many recently discovered and beautifully preserved specimens. The back of the book has a very thorough list of references and an index for deeper reading.
Find out more:
Amazon: Mark Witton's new book Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy
Amazon: Peter Wellnhofer's 1991 book Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs
Facebook page for the book
Princeton University Press webpage


Tom Hart said...

Not being versed at all in this topic, I have to wonder: Do you happen to know if there's good reason to believe that the giraffe-sized critters DID actually fly, as opposed to having vestigal wings?

James Gurney said...

One thing you can see in the fossils: the bones are extremely lightly (but strongly) built, showing that they were light enough to take to the air. The bones of flightless birds such as ostriches still have hollowness compared to other land animals, but they're far heavier built.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

I recently got the book and I can definitely recommend it. It's a truly scientific book with discussions of the evidence and what we could possibly deduct from it, written in an easily accessible and quite humorous style.

Among other things, he goes into some detail about why there is very good reason to suppose that those huge azdarchids really did fly - as James say, they were definitely built the way flyers are.

A little note: The reconstructions are not quite showing flying pterosaurs at the bottom of a flap cycle, but launching pterosaurs (according to a recent and apparently widely accepted theory about how they managed to get airborne - also described in the book).

Another review here:

James Gurney said...

CGB, thanks for that clarification. You're right. I picture them leaping off with a huge flap of their wings, neck and legs fully extended, to get them started. Exactly how pterosaurs got off the ground has been a "bone" of contention for a long time.

Tom Hart said...

Thanks James and CGB. It's truly amazing to imagine a living thing that large soaring overhead!

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

As I have understood, there hasn't yet been found conclusive evidence proving that this is how they took off, but given that they most likely walked around with those big, strong forelimbs on the ground it seems a likely conclusion (vampire bats are known to do something similar). The initial leap is actually more a push-up than a flap.

As I recall, in the book there is a short hint at some recently discovered pterosaur footprints that could support this theory, but apparently the material has yet to be published.

Found this video showing the take-off as it is supposed to have been done:

Imagine a giraffe-sized creature doing that. Must have been an incredibly awesome sight.

M Althauser said...

I discovered Mr. Witton's work on Flickr years and years ago, and have always loved his illustrations. I'm glad to hear that Pterosaurs is just as well written as the lengthy, multiple page entries he used to pen for each pterosaur illustration on his Flickr page!