Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Bring azhdarchids down to the ground

Last week, palaeontologist Mike Taylor (of SVPOW) brought up a very good point on twitter:
And many of us whole-heartedly agree. Flying models of azhdarchid pterosaurs are what typically grace museums, if they appear at all. These are impressive, but also often missed. For example, at the AMNH pterosaur exhibit on that ended earlier this year, there was a giant fleshed out azhdarchid model on the ceiling. The problem? It was in a room with lots of things that people were more interested in, and hardly anyone actually looked up and saw it. Even once you do see it, it's hard to really understand how big it is, and that it is really a model of a real, flying animal.
Full-sized flying azhdarchid model at the State Museum of Natural History, Karlsruhe
An azhdarchid pterosaur standing to attention with a giraffe
and human for scale. Image copyright Mark Witton.
However, if you stand an animal on the ground next to something they are used to seeing (or even better, where they can stand next to it), the scale suddenly becomes a lot more clear and it's much easier to be amazed by the size. Take Mark Witton's iconic azhdarchid with giraffe for scale - it allows us to really appreciate how big these animals were. I think everyone would agree that a giraffe is a very tall animal, and the biggest azhdarchids were just as tall. Tell me that isn't impressive! Pterosaurs don't always need to be depicted with their wings outstretched and flying. They were equally as impressive on the ground walking around on all fours. Additionally, depicting a pterosaur on the ground teaches people that pterosaurs were actually quadrupedal animals. They were not walking around on their hind limbs like birds, and like many old depictions show. They walked with their wing finger bent up behind them and their hand down on the ground as shown in the image above. We know this is true thanks to the anatomy combined with a number of trackways attributed to pterosaurs that clearly show 2 different sets of prints: a hind limb set and a forelimb set. Bringing those pterosaurs down to the ground both reiterates how large they were, AND teaches people something about their biology. What could be wrong with that?

I can personally attest to how impressive a standing floor mount of an azhdarchid can be, and what it can do. I've always been interested in palaeontology, but was never sure exactly what I wanted to study. That was until I went to France in 2009 on a family trip during my undergraduate degree. I had heard about a small but interesting natural history museum in Esperaza, and we decided to check it out. Here I saw my first (and only) azhdarchid floor mount, and was instantly amazed. I'm not sure how long I stood there, but  I can tell you that I spent probably 20 minutes looking at this thing from different angles in awe. That was the moment that I decided I wanted to study pterosaurs, and it was that instant that made me ask the question "how did these large animals fly?". And to top it off, that mount isn't even showing the azhdarchid standing to full height. It's sprawling quite a bit, and should be even taller.
The Quetzalcoatlus standing skeletal mount in Esperaza (sorry the picture isn't great!)
While they are frequently depicted in palaeoart down on the ground, they are so rarely shown this way in museums. I wholeheartedly agree with Mike Taylor and Mark Witton about this - bring azhdarchids down to the ground! Let people stand beside them and look up at them. It's the best way to truly show how big the animal is. It's what I owe my current love for pterosaurs to!

- Thanks to Mike Taylor and Mark Witton for the idea, and Ben Miller and Joe Hancock for the blog post encouragement!