Those sexy tupuxuarids
* This book is often said to be rare and expensive. Maybe that’s true, but I got mine for £3 in a second-hand book shop.
Given this lamentable situation let me continue with the bigging-up. The Pterosaurs from Deep Time is not, as some have said, a coffee-table book. Yeah, it features some big and highly attractive pictures (both excellent photos of specimens, and colour artwork), but in its thorough coverage of what we know about pterosaur diversity, evolution, biology and lifestyle, it is unparalleled and awesome. If only books like this existed on all the tetrapod groups. Seriously, I am hard pressed to think of any detail about pterosaurs that Unwin has not covered. Todd Marshall’s artwork, scattered throughout the book, is great, with accurate, dynamic animals poised in realistically cluttered, detailed environments. I’ve collaborated with Todd (I advised him when he produced artwork for Usborne’s 2004 World Atlas of Dinosaurs), and I get the impression that he works hard to make fossil animals look like long-time denizens of their environments. Think about it: living animals generally aren’t pristine objects, looking as if they’ve just come out of the pages of a field guide; they are often physically untidy, or dirty. Their colours and surface textures may mimic or even incorporate the sediments and plants of their environment. They often look like they belong. This is the feeling I get from Todd’s animals.
My technical work, back when I could consider myself a palaeontologist (right now I consider myself simply unemployed), was on theropod dinosaurs. But as with so much in life I kept finding myself distracted and spending time on extraneous side projects, and every now and again I’ve dabbled on pterosaurs (e.g., Naish & Martill 2003). During 2004 and 2005, Dave Martill and I spent a lot of time on an unusual Cretaceous pterosaur from
First described for a partial snout from the Brazilian Santana Formation, Tupuxuara longicristatus Kellner & Campos, 1988 is a toothless Cretaceous pterosaur with a rather long, subtriangular skull. A tall mid-line crest grew like a sail from the dorsal margin of the snout and cranium. It now seems that nearly all of the characters proposed initially to distinguish Tupuxuara from other pterodactyloid pterosaurs are problematic in not being unique to the genus, but in fact Tupuxuara is clearly diagnosable, being unique in having a sort of deep premaxillary crest in which the dorsal margin extends subparallel to the dorsal margin of the nasoantorbital fenestra (Martill & Naish 2006, p. 931). While Tupuxuara is known today from near-complete skeletons (frustratingly, these specimens still await proper description), the good thing about this diagnosis is that it applies even to the 1988 type material.
A second Tupuxuara species, T. leonardii Kellner & Campos, 1994, is also from the Santana Formation and, curiously, was also represented initially only by an incomplete section of snout. A few other tupuxuarid specimens have been reported. A specimen named Santanadactylus spixi Wellnhofer, 1985 is almost certainly a close relative of Tupuxuara (possibly even a member of the genus), despite the fact that it was named as a new species of an ornithocheirid genus (ornithocheirids are long-skulled toothed pterodactyloids closely related to Pteranodon and Nyctosaurus, and not particularly closely related to azhdarchoids). Various taxonomically indeterminate Crato Formation specimens also seem referable to the group. Then there is Thalassodromeus sethi Kellner & Campos, 2002, also from the Santana Formation of Brazil. Thalassodromeus is, supposedly, distinct from Tupuxuara, but this is debatable. More on this issue another time [adjacent Tupuxuara skull image from the pterosaurier site].
Finally, a pterosaur snout and lower jaw from the late Maastrichtian Javelina Formation of Texas, illustrated in Wellnhofer’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs and labelled therein as Quetzalcoatlus, also seems to be a tupuxuarid and possesses a snout morphology highly similar to that regarded as diagnostic for Tupuxuara. This is really interesting for a few reasons. It shows that tuxupuarids existed in
What sort of pterosaur is Tupuxuara? Based mostly on characteristic features of the skull and hand, there is universal agreement among pterosaur experts that Tupuxuara is an azhdarchoid: that is, a close relatives of the azhdarchids – those large to enormous long-necked pterodactyloids that, I argue, most likely lived a stork-like lifestyle. But, among azhdarchoids, is Tupuxuara particularly close to azhdarchids, or is it actually more closely related to the bizarre, shorter-skulled Tapejara? Here we come to a fundamental disagreement among pterosaur experts.
Pointing to similarities in the shape of the orbit, snout tip and crest, and the anatomy of the coracoid, Alex Kellner (2003a, b, 2004) has argued that Tapejara and Tupuxuara should be united as the Tapejaridae. Conversely, noting derived characters in the hand and skull seen in Tupuxuara and azhdarchids but not in Tapejara, Unwin (2003) has proposed that Tupuxuara forms a clade with the azhdarchids (dubbed Neoazhdarchia), rather than one with Tapejara. Several recently described azhdarchoids complicate this area. Sinopterus and Huaxiapterus, both with two species each (all from the Lower Cretaceous of China), appear intermediate in some respects between Tapejara and azhdarchids, and the supposed Tapejara species T. navigans is also more like azhdarchids in some details than it is like the type species of Tapejara, T. wellnhoferi.
In a new evaluation of the characters employed in this debate, Dave and I concluded that the concept of Neoazhdarchia is better supported than the idea of a Tapejaridae that includes Tupuxuara (Martill & Naish 2006). Note, however, that our cladistic analysis is weak with a small data set. Furthermore, while we didn’t find Tupuxuara to group together with Tapejara, we did sometimes find Tapejara to group together with Sinopterus. While Kellner’s concept of Tapejaridae may be paraphyletic, it therefore seems that there is a clade that we should call Tapejaridae: it includes Tapejara wellnhoferi, Sinopterus and Huaxiapterus. A subsequent study came to the same conclusion (Lü et al. 2006).
What I found particularly interesting is that we didn’t find the several Tapejara species to group together, but this isn’t surprising given how distinct they are. The type species, T. wellnhoferi, is relatively short-skulled and with a modest bony crest and just a short bony projection at the skull’s rear margin. T. imperator and T. navigans, in contrast, are longer-skulled, with immense vertical crests, supported by thin subvertical spines at their leading edges. A really long bony spike projects backwards from the skull’s rear margin in T. imperator. A study due to be published soon revises the taxonomy of these supposed close relatives: more news on that when it appears [adjacent image shows T. imperator. Yet again borrowed from Mark Witton’s flickr site. Sorry Mark].
And I’ll have to stop there. Given that the main point of Martill & Naish (2006) was to document ontogenetic changes that occurred in Tupuxuara – changes linked to the probable use of the cranial crest as a sexual signal – it’s ironic that I haven’t covered this story here, but I will in future. And, as I said, there’s also the debate about tupuxuarid feeding biology and so on. And don’t worry if you’re hoping to see more on phorusrhacids – I haven’t finished with them yet. Stuff on British dinosaurs coming soon. Oh yeah – pdfs of both Naish & Martill (2003) and Martill & Naish (2006) are available, feel free to ask and I can send them.
For previous posts on pterosaurs see Pterosaur wings and Why azhdarchids were giant storks. Posts on tupuxuarids have been promised for a while: see Attack of the blue foamy pterosaurs. For those interested, we are now at 33 ‘100 year’ European mammals. For the latest news on Tetrapod Zoology do go here.
Refs - -
Kellner, A. W. A. 2003a. Pterosaur phylogeny and comments on the evolutionary history of the group. In Buffetaut, E. & Mazin, J.-M. (eds) Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs. Geological Society Special Publication 217. The Geological Society of
- . 2003b. Comments on the phylogeny of the Pterodactyloidea. Rivista
- . 2004. New information on the Tapejaridae (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea) and discussion of the relationships of this clade. Ameghiniana 41, 521-534.
Lü, J., Jin, X., Unwin, D. M., Zhao, L., Azuma, Y. & Ji, Q. 2006. A new species of Huaxiapterus (Pterosauria: Pterodactyloidea) from the Lower Cretaceous of western
Martill, D. M. & Naish, D. 2006. Cranial crest development in the azhdarchoid pterosaur Tupuxuara, with a review of the genus and tapejarid monophyly. Palaeontology 49, 925-941.
Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. 2003. Pterosaurs – a successful invasion of prehistoric skies. Biologist 50 (5), 213-216.
Unwin, D. M. 2003. On the phylogeny and evolutionary history of pterosaurs. In Buffetaut, E. & Mazin, J.-M. (eds) Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs. Geological Society Special Publication 217. The Geological Society of