Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy by Mark P. Witton is a coffee-table size book rich in detail and lavishly illustrated. Witton is a pterosaur expert at the School of Earh and Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth. He is famous for his illustrations and his work in popular media such as the film “Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.”
The first pterosaur fossil was found in the late 18th century in the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestones, in Germany, the same excellent preservational environment that would later yield Archaeopteryx. They person who first studied it thought the elongated finger bones that we now know supported a wing served as a flipper in an amphibious creature. Not long after, the famous paleontologist George Cuvier recognized the winged nature of the beast. Witton notes that at the time, and through a good part of the 19th century, it was possible to believe that many of the odd fossils being unearthed were of species that still existed but were unknown to science. This is because most of the fossils were aquatic, and who knew what mysterious forms lurked beneath the sea? But a very large flying thing like this first pterosaur was very unlikely to still exist, unseen by European and American investigators. It had to be something major that was truly extinct. So in a way the history of extinction (the study of it, that is) was significantly shaped by this find. By the early 20th century there had been enough publication and study of pterosaurs to give them a place in paleontology, but not a lot else happened until the 1970s, when a combination of factors, including advanced technology that allowed more detailed and sophisticated study of fossils, led to much more intensive study of pterosaur anatomy and behavior.
Pterosaurs are part of the large taxonomic group that includes the lizards, dinosaurs, and birds, but they branched off within that group prior to the rise of the latter two. So, they are not dinosaurs, but cousins of dinosaurs. You can call them flying lizards, but not flying dinosaurs.
Witton explores this interesting history in some detail, and then proceeds to explore various aspects of pterosaur biology, starting with the skeleton, the soft parts (of which there is some direct but mostly indirect evidence), their flight, how they got around on the ground, and their reproductive biology. These explorations into pterosaurs in general is followed by several chapters devoted to the various groups, with a treatment of the evidence for each group, reconstructions of anatomy, locomotion in the air and on the ground, and ecology.
The resemblance of this layout to a detailed field guide for birds (or some other group) is enhanced by the use of color-coded bleeds at the top of each page, separating the book’s major sections or groups of chapters. The book ends with a consideration of the origins and endings of the “Pterosaur Empire.” It turns out that we don’t actually know why they went extinct. They lasted to the end of the Cretaceous, so going extinct along with their dinosaur cousins is a reasonable hypothesis, but they had already become somewhat rare by that time.
Pterosaurs are cool. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy is a cool book.
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