*Surely no-one here needs to be told what an azhdarchid is? You do? Then check out this article for a primer.
|Why do we think azhdarchids were 'terrestrial stalkers'? A handy infographic explaining our reasoning, from Witton and Naish (2013). The greyed cervical vertebrae indicate the range of azhdarchid neck motion according to Averianov (2013), which we are pleased to see meeting our expectations of ground-reaching ability (see Witton and Naish 2008; Fig. 8 and caption).|
- Azhdarchid remains are always found in ancient lake and river deposits, which indicates they were feeding there as well.
- Grounded azhdarchids were vulnerable to predation from theropod dinosaurs, being ill-suited to rapid takeoff or other means of quick escape.
- We overlooked the helical jaw joint of azhdarchids in our 2008 paper. Azhdarchids possess a skewed jaw joint which laterally displaces the mandibular rami when the jaw is opened, expanding the throat region marginally. According to Averianov (2013), this is a sign of expanding, pelican-like jaws, which permitted fish to be scooped from water in flight, which is a superior hypothesis to terrestrial stalking.
Taphonomy is not destiny
Averanov's (2013) first 'flaw' is problematic for pretty elementary reasons. It's common knowledge that all manner of fossil terrestrial animals occur in aquatic environments because that's where the majority of continental sediments accumulate. Azhdarchids routinely occur in aquatic deposits with the likes of dinosaurs, reptiles, birds and so on, but we don't assume the latter are tied to water simply because their fossils are found in ancient rivers and lakes. Ergo, we shouldn't assume this for azhdarchids either. Taphonomy does not necessarily correlate with palaeobiology. Moreover, it's not true that all azhdarchids are found in remnants of aquatic settings: some occur in ancient deserts and ash beds. There's not much else to say on this fairly basic point (check out the paper if you want to read our full response), so we'll get onto the more interesting stuff.
Killer storks, giant pterosaurs, and the Age of MurderDeathReptiles
A number of folks have asked us about the vulnerability of grounded pterosaurs to predators, and Averianov (2013) specifically mentions the problems azhdarchids would have taking off when faced with attackers ("It is hardly probable that huge azhdarchids could take wing in one go and running for acceleration is difficult in marshland conditions” - Averianov 2013, p. 207). As we note in our new paper, palaeobehaviour is hard to discuss in a truly scientific manner and we are wary of just making bold, arm-wavy comments about ancient predator-prey interactions. There are some comments we can make, however, which do not rely on crass speculation.
Firstly, modern ideas of pterosaur takeoff (which regular pterosaurophiles will know means quadrupedal launching) suggest these animals could become airborne in seconds from a standing start (contra Averianov 2013). Thus, there is little reason to think that azhdarchids - or any other pterosaurs - would have to engage in panicked running to escape predators. Quad launches also permit greater acceleration and power than bipedal launches. This may make pterosaurs actually more adept at turning tail from predators than large modern birds, which do have to engage in a little taxiing before becoming airborne. We therefore do not envisage that grounded pterosaurs - even giant azhdarchids - would struggle to escape predators when startled.
|According to some, this is pretty much what the Mesozoic looked like all the time. Background borrowed from here.|
"...the idea of azhdarchids may have been highly vulnerable to terrestrial predation labours under several probably erroneous assumptions, including viewing theropods as unstoppable killing machines, immediately pouncing on and devouring any grounded pterosaur. In point of fact, the behaviour of living predators indicates that theropods large and small likely exploited easy prey (Hone and Rauhut 2010), ignored or avoided large or awkward prey, and were not a perpetual, 24-hour menace across all environments, worldwide." Witton and Naish 2013 (In Press)I've discussed the over-statement of aggressive behaviour of Mesozoic animals several times before, and I'm sure I'm not alone in finding portrayal of dinosaurs as angry murder/death/kill machines irritating. It's frustrating enough when seen in popular media, but particularly irksome when it seemingly influences scientific discussions. I don't want to understate predation risks, but modern animals demonstrate that behaviours like extended bouts of foraging, resting and socialising can be performed without being ripped to pieces by passing predators. Assuming the Mesozoic operated under the same basic principles, it almost certainly wasn't the 190 million year bloodbath it's often made out to be.
|A giant pterosaur compared to top theropod carnivores of giant azhdarchid-bearing Late Cretaceous ecosystems. A, Tyrannosaurus rex, representing the largest known predator in Maastrichtian North America; B, Balaur bondoc, largest predatory theropod of Maastrichtian Romania; C, Arambourgiania philadelphiae, standing in for the similarly-sized azhdarchids which lived alongside A and B, respectively; D, human sleuth for scale. From Witton and Naish (2013).|
Of course, there were likely some occasions when azhdarchids were caught out by predators: would this spell instant doom for the pterosaur? Not necessarily. Again, this is hard to say with confidence, but we note that large modern storks - which resemble azhdarchids more than any other modern species - can be far more dangerous than most folks realise. These birds can inflict severe, sometimes fatal injuries with their beaks when panicked and cornered. Children are seriously wounded or even killed by marabou storks when trying to harvest soft white contour feathers from these usually calm birds (Mackay 1950). Zoo staff routinely arm themselves against attack from captive jabiru storks because attacks are so frequent and vicious (Shannon 1987). Indeed, even relatively large animals like tapirs are no match for angry jabirus. These storks are not armed with razor-sharp, hooked beaks: they deliver this damage with their simple, long, pointed bills. Whether this means azhdarchids used their jaws as similarly formidable weapons is anyone's guess, but it demonstrates that azhdarchid-like bills can be used as fearsome predator deterrents if wielded properly. Remember, of course, that some azhdarchids probably had beaks over 2 m long, 6-8 times longer than those of even the largest modern storks. An giant azhdarchid in a bad mood may be well worth avoiding.
We have some additional discussion on this point in our MS, but I think you get the gist of what we're saying. Our bottom line is not that azhdarchids could wander about Cretaceous plains without a care in the world, just that there is no reason to assume they were overtly vulnerable to predation risks. Indeed, there is evidence to quite the opposite in several cases, and there is no reason to think this is a flaw in the terrestrial stalker hypothesis.
The scoop-feeding pelican-mimic thing
This does not mean, of course, that azhdarchids had to be terrestrial stalkers just because they could walk around without being eaten immediately: water-trawling 'scoop feeding' could still be a viable alternative to terrestrial stalking. Citing the helical jaw joint of azhdarchids as evidence for a pelican-like expanding throat region, Averianov (2013)'s summation of his azhdarchid feeding hypothesis reads:
"...azhdarchids flied [sic] slowly above the water surface of large inland water bodies… looking out for fish or small fish shoals. As prey is detected, they opened the mouth, expanding the throat sac due to the spiral jaw joint, and captured fish in this scoop net, formed by the jaw rami and throat sac. Then, the head was thrown abruptly back by extension of the neck in the posterior region and prey was swallowed.” Averianov 2013, p. 209Although far from the first author to compare pterosaur and pelican jaws favourably, this is the first time (to my knowledge) that specifically pelican-like throat expansion has been proposed for pterosaurs and linked to a certain foraging strategy. The exact method of foraging suggested here - a mix of 'scoop' and skim-feeding - does not have a modern representative but is clearly an 'extreme' lifestyle, likely to incur considerable loading on azhdarchid skulls, jaws and neck. As with some other proposed 'extreme' azhdarchid lifestyles, like skim-feeding, we'd expect to see considerable specialisation in azhdarchid anatomy to reflect this but, unfortunately, we don't. Indeed, our assessment of this feeding mechanism suggests it is fraught with biomechanical and functional problems, in addition to failing tests offered by comparative anatomy.
|Extending jaw area measurements of the brown pelican and select azhdarchid pterosaurs. Note the pelican is being rather lazy with it's jaw bowing, and yet still achieves much greater area increase than the azhdarchids. From Witton and Naish (2013).|
|Brown pelican jaws in action. From Schreiber et al. (1975)|
|Extreme lifestyles require extreme anatomies. Here's a summary of what you need to be a skim-feeding species, according to the modern skimming bird, Rynchops. From this post.|
In sum, we more-or-less go full circle in our new study, coming back to terrestrial stalking as the most likely current interpretation of azhdarchid palaeecology. Reflecting on this study, and the other studies into pterosaur palaeoecology I've been involved with (Humphries et al. 2007; Witton and Naish 2008, 2013; Witton 2012), it strikes me that proposed 'extreme' foraging methods are almost always inferred from a few anatomical characteristics rather than entire bauplans. This is certainly the case for 'scoop feeding' and skim-feeding (e.g. Kellner and Langston 1996; Martill 1997; Averianov 2013). Why do we keep doing this? It almost seems that our default assumption for pterosaurs is that they lived crazy, outlandish lives which we select evidence to verify. This is a completely backwards and unscientific way of assessing ancient animal habits. Modern animals with 'extreme' lifestyles wear their adaptations across their bodies, suggesting that we need to look at the entire picture of extinct species before we propose our palaeoecological interpretations (see details on skim-feeding adaptations, above). Folks like myself and Darren currently champion the terrestrial stalker hypothesis not because it's our 'pet idea', but because it's currently the only hypothesis which considers the entire azhdarchid bauplan (see our infographic at the top of the post), is consistent with biomechanical or functional parameters of azhdarchid anatomy and matches lifestyle predictions made through comparative anatomy. It may well not be the last word on this topic, but at least there's a foundation of science to it, which is more than can be said for a lot of proposed pterosaur lifestyles (see Witton 2013 for a review). If we're expecting to understand the palaeoecology of these animals in detail, we really have to move away from our rather basic, selective interpretations of their anatomy and provide more detailed, dedicated assessments.
I'll have to stop there for now. Be sure to check out the rest of Witton and Naish (2013) for further details on this study and, for more on pterosaur palaeoecology and azhdarchids in general, you may want to check my book (Witton 2013).
- Averianov, A. O. (2013). Reconstruction of the neck of Azhdarcho lancicollis and lifestyle of azhdarchids (Pterosauria, Azhdarchidae). Paleontological Journal, 47(2), 203-209.
- Humphries, S., Bonser, R. H., Witton, M. P., & Martill, D. M. (2007). Did pterosaurs feed by skimming? Physical modelling and anatomical evaluation of an unusual feeding method. PLoS biology, 5(8), e204.
- Kellner, A. W., & Langston Jr, W. (1996). Cranial remains of Quetzalcoatlus (Pterosauria, Azhdarchidae) from Late Cretaceous sediments of Big Bend National Park, Texas. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 16, 222-231.
- Mackay, H. (1950). The quaint Marabou stork. Zoo Life 5, 91-92.
- Martill, D. M. (1997). From hypothesis to fact in a flight of fancy: The responsibility of the popular scientific media. Geology Today, 13, 71-73.
- Schreiber, R. W., Woolfenden, G. E. & Curtsinger, W. E. (1975). Prey capture by the Brown Pelican. The Auk, 92(4), 649-654.
- Shannon, P. W. (1987) The Jabiru Stork (Jabiru mycteria) in zoo collections in the United States. Colonial Waterbirds 10, 242-250.
- Witton, M. P. (2012). New insights into the skull of Istiodactylus latidens (Ornithocheiroidea, Pterodactyloidea). PloS One, 7(3), e33170.
- Witton, M. P. (2013). Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. Princeton University Press.
- Witton, M. P., & Naish, D. (2008). A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS One, 3(5), e2271.
- Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. (2013) Azhdarchid pterosaurs: water-trawling pelican mimics or "terrestrial stalkers? Acta Palaeontologica Polonica (in press)