Natural Anthem: A visit to the NHM…

My 4th post. This is getting serious. I guess now I’ve managed to get the ball rolling on this and actually get the introduction out the way, it’s time to start showing you the fun stuff…

As I’ve mentioned previously, my project is based on the variation of pterosaur completeness through time, which is determined by looking at the amount of cladistic characters which can be coded for any specific species of pterosaur. However, to be able to do this you really need at least some grounding in pterosaur anatomy, so you actually know what you’re looking for. I’ve recently completed my completeness database (yay!) and I’ll be getting on with writing a big ol’ blog about that soon, but one of the last species I looked at, a Cycnorhamphus from the Early Tithonian known as Gallodactylus canjuersensis, gives you a good idea of the kind of stuff you have to look at when attempting to work out completeness:

You can imagine my face late at night when I opened this bastard for completion.

As you can see, this is a pretty horrible specimen to work out what’s going on. Frankly, its a bit of a mess, but it was made about a million time worse when the only information relating to the diagram was in French in a scanned pdf document. I wouldn’t have even come close to figuring out what the hell was going on here without some basic introduction to anatomy (and a bit of creative google translate). And its for that reason that back in the oh-so distant past of September I took a trip into the vaults of the Natural History Museum to get accustomed to some of these flying beasts for the first time…

My supervisor had previously suggested that I get in contact with Lorna Steel, a curator of the fossil vertebrates at the NHM to help me out – she specialises in pterosaurs and so was the perfect person to ask! Lorna took me to the racks where they keep the pterosaur remains, and after showing me the ropes and helping me get a few specimens down, she set me loose to wreak havoc have a play with the fossils they had available (Before I get any further, I’d like to mention that all photos produced here are copyrighted of the Natural History Museum, London, and should not be taken for commercial use).

Row after row of shelved fossils in the vaults of the NHM. Copyright: Natural History Museum.

The collection of pterosaurs that I saw was roughly split into two parts – smaller specimens kept in individual drawers, and the larger ones on huge shelves. Even the smaller specimens were damned heavy, so I hate to think what effort it took to lift some of the big ‘uns…

Shelves containing numerous larger pterosaur specimens. Copyright: Natural History Museum.

Lorna helped me get out a few specimens that showed particularly clear anatomy. The first of these was the wing of a generic Pterodactylus, unassigned to a particular species, which showed exceptionally preserved anatomy. Here you can see the carpals and metacarpals (all the bones on the left) and the elongated fourth finger, split into four wing phalanges. Nice and simple right?

A Pterodactylus wing with rudimentary annotations showing the anatomy. Copyright: Natural History Museum.

However, the other specimen proved to be the most exciting to me; a Dimorphodon macronyx, one of the first pterosaurs discovered within the UK. There were several of these lying about in the drawers, but one of the specimens was a famous example sent to Richard Owen in 1858, which is nicely detailed. The skull is pretty complete, and you can see quite a few of the various limb elements lying around. It proved useful in getting me to grips with the anatomy of pterosaurs, and it was generally an awesome specimen to play about with.

Dimorphodon macronyx. Copyright: Natural History Museum

On of the best bits was seeing the very feature that give it its’ latin name = two formed tooth. You can see the different types of teeth on the upper and lower jaw really clearly here.

The clear difference between the teeth can be observed here. Copyright: Natural History Museum.

Whilst these were the specimens I really looked at for anatomical purposes, I had a browse round the other draws and shelves as well (How could any sane man not?!), so here are some ‘prime cuts’ that I discovered:

A small pterosaur bone originally found in Hastings – I got pretty excited when I found this as I used to go there all the time as a kid to the Sealife Centre. Copyright: Natural History Museum.

A massive Pterandon skull, with my hand for scale. Copyright: Natural History Museum.

An assortment of wing Phalanges for a large Pteranodon, from Kansas. Nice and neat! Copyright: Natural History Museum

Finally, I finished off the day with a bit of light sketching of a pterosaur skull. Cladistically, skulls are pretty much the most important feature on any organism, but they’re also the most complicated. It’s formed of many small bones, which often change subtly between species. This allows for nice cladograms to be drawn, but it also makes analysis of them a pain in the arse. I was running low on time, so grabbed a cool paper that Lorna had provided me with, and quickly sketched out some of the major bones within the skull. I’ll do a proper anatomical lesson at some point when I’m feeling brave, so for the meantime just wonder at my shoddy, shoddy sketch.

Pesky thumb is back.

Quick and rough sketch of a pterosaur skull. I’m normally better, I promise!

Since I’ve been a kid, it was always my dream to visit the NHM vaults, so this was a pretty special experience for me, and one that I hope to repeat again at some point (fingers crossed!). Another cheers to Lorna for being lovely and letting me ask ridiculous questions, and to the NHM in general for allowing me there! I’ll leave you for now with this: The small bone is a humerus from a reasonably sized pterosaur. The big brown thing on the right is just the distal end of a humerus for a Quetzalcoatlus. I told you these beasts were pretty cool!

Quetzalcoatlus was preeeeetty big. Copyright: Natural History Museum.

Today’s post title comes from this great song.

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One response to “Natural Anthem: A visit to the NHM…

  1. Pingback: Dig Up The Dead: My Day at the Ardingly Dinosaur Dig Pt. 1 | He's Simple, He's dumb, He's a Palaeontologist·

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