The Fifth Symposium on the Flying Humanoid Problem
I’ve just returned from the 5th Symposium on the Flying Humanoid Problem, this year held at Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
In contrast to some of the previous symposia, it was good to see that most of the problem areas are now agreed on, and that a new, integrated picture is coming together. Certainly one of the impressions I got from the talks was that most of the key researchers are working with one another, and certainly aren’t at loggerheads. That’s a long way off from the rather aggressive first and second meetings.
Anyway, one main area of disagreement does remain, and in fact proved quite controversial: what should these meetings be called? At the third meeting it was agreed that the term ‘flying humanoid’ would be scrapped, and that McEwan’s term, keelivolians, would be used instead. In an open-floor discussion held at the end of the first day, the organizers explained that they hadn’t done this, simply because few zoologists outside of keelivolian research would know what a keelivolian is. That’s fair enough, but I think they missed the point in that the only workers who attend these meeting are those involved in keelivolian research anyway! Next year’s meeting is to hosted by the Trois Freres group (France) and they’ve already announced that they will be using the term keelivolian in all of their promotion and literature. Good.
On to the actual presentations. Tuesday morning kicked off with fossils and phylogeny, with some functional morphology and anatomy in the afternoon. Wednesday was mostly devoted to historical biogeography, but with behavioral observations after lunch. Finally, Thursday was devoted to conservation and management, but I couldn’t stay for that day so missed those talks. If anyone caught them and can give me the details it would be appreciated.
After a brief welcome talk by McEwan and Jacques, Russell Hoban gave a talk entitled ‘New fossil keelivolians: finally, keelivolian phylogeny takes off’ (groan). Megaseptetoile is a new taxon from Pliocene France. It would have looked much like Septetoile but with proportionally longer limbs, plus overall it was much larger, with a wingspan of c. 3 m (compared to 1.5 m for Septetoile). Bretonia ornicephala is a new name for the population that used to be regarded as European Miocene representatives of Teenteea – actually, it isn’t like Teenteea at all, being smaller, with hindlimbs suggestive of semi-cursoriality (!) and with evidence for display structures on the back of the neck. A new phylogeny incorporating these taxa found mawnans Septetoile shielsi and Teenteea to be sister-taxa (which is consistent with Hall’s studies on trans-Atlantic movements: see below). The endemic west African taxa Kikiyaon and Guiafairo grouped as sister-taxa but, surprisingly, Sasabonsam proved closest to the Septetoile clade. The morphological evidence for this is actually pretty good, and the genetic data clearly favours it. Bretonia grouped in a clade with Tengusia and Danangia, the most basal member of which was Popobawa, which of course is African. There’s a strong African signal in the tree, with evidence for one Asian radiation, and for several independent invasions of Europe.
Hank Emerson presented new mtDNA work on mawnans, incorporating both living individuals and data from archaeological samples. While all sampled living individuals were closely related enough to imply recent divergence from a post-Pleistocene ancestor, the genetic diversity of the old specimens was big enough to show that a bottlenecking had occurred. What’s nice about this is that Hoban had previously suggested that this might be likely, given the tiny Cornish range of extant mawnans. However, brown mawnans proved distinct enough from grey mawnans to be raised to species level: they aren’t just brown-phase oddities as previously assumed, and the oldest available name for them is Septetoile reichenbachi Ernst 1939. While this increases the diversity of extant keelivolians, it’s disturbing from the conservationist perspective as brown mawnans are only known from two individuals and must be critically endangered. A pied mawnan reported and sampled in 1992 proved to be an aberrant grey mawnan.
Further evidence that mawnans were more widely distributed in Europe than they are today was presented by Henrietta Breuille who reviewed archaeological data from France, Austria and the Czech Republic. Cave paintings from France clearly depict Septetoile.
Don Worley continued on the same theme by showing how old eyewitness accounts of the SE Asian taxon Danangia come from places where the tropical forest matched that of the Vietnamese reserve where the last Danangia population survives. By implication, Danangia was formerly present in these other regions, and thus more widely distributed across SE Asia in the recent past. However, given the discovery of multiple new large tetrapods from Laos and Vietnam in recent years Worley considered it at least possible that Danangia might await rediscovery in some of these regions. A good question was asked after his talk: are all specimens of Danangia melanistic, and are they all female? The answer seems to be yes, so Danangia is presumed to be parthenogenetic, and thus unique among the group.
Brian Kerns and David Fetty discussed their study on a newly discovered skull of the North American taxon Teenteea keganpaulorum. Several areas of cranial morphology in Teenteea have remained unreported, so this was pretty welcome. The jaws are entirely edentulous and the tightly coiled cochlear canal indicates specialized high-frequency hearing. What I liked best about this presentation was that, though they didn’t really mention it, the data from the anatomy matches entirely with the postures and movements reported in field studies (Scarberry & Mallette 1966, Yoder & Enoch 1966). The morphology of the three occipital condyles, for example, indicates that the head can be rotated on the cylindrical atlas-axis complex by about 360º, which obviously way surpasses that of any other tetrapod. Even stranger, a strong S-shaped flexure in the cervical series (not obvious in live animals because of pectoral air sacs) means that the anterior part of the neck can be rapidly retracted into the thorax. This contention is supported by high-speed photography and shows that reports of rapid head retraction ‘into the shoulders’ by eyewitnesses were accurate.
Simon Parker discussed new field observations of mawnans (including the first day-time records of active individuals) and Mike Hall presented preliminary data from his behavioural studies on the Cornish mawnan population. Despite their localized range, hardly any other previous studies have covered this area (the two exceptions being Chapman & Perry 1976 and Opie 1978), mostly because the animals prove so cryptic whenever anyone tries to find them in the field. Looking mostly at long-distance movement and the cryptic behaviour, and using radio tagging and remotely-operated cameras, he has confirmed that mawnans spend literally weeks lying still on the forest floor, imitating logs. It is inferred that they avoid muscle wasting the same manner that hibernating mammals do, though this must remain speculative until more work is done. The hypothesis that mawnans might migrate across the North Atlantic has been confirmed by radio tracking of a tagged individual. Rather than migrating annually, as Hall previously proposed, the four tagged individuals each crossed the ocean between 6 and 9 times a year. Quite why they do this remains totally unknown.
All in all it was a great meeting (photo of all the speakers above, with me sneaking in at the far left). I didn’t get to go on the field trip, but I’ve seen the Teenteea roost sites before. Given that keelivolians were only recognized as a valid group of tetrapods in 1966 (Keel 1966), our understanding has come on leaps and bounds, and no doubt next year’s meeting will be as full of suprises. An abstract volume resulted from the meeting, and at least some of the presentations will appear in a special issue of Domrama.
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Refs - -
Chapman, B. & Perry, S. 1976. Field tracking of the Mawnan, the first discovery of day-time terrestrial roost sites. Forest Ecology in Cornwall 34, 287-298.
Keel, I. 1966. A new, highly unusual group of enigmatic bipedal flying vertebrates. Science 153, 999-1000.
Opie, K. 1978. Observations on sleeping and roosting in mawnans, and the first attempt to capture nocturnal flight behaviour on film. Journal of Wildlife Management 5, 8775-8776.
Scarberry & Mallette 1966. Behavior in the field and laboratory of the new volant tetrapod Teenteea keganpaulorum Keel. Ethology 101, 373-395.
Yoder, P. & Enoch, B. 1966. Behavioral significance of vocalizations and high-speed flight in the North American flying humanoid Teenteea. American Journal of Animal Behavior 23, 67-80.