Five reasons as to why Proapteryx is interesting

Peter Schouten's Proapteryx picture accompanied by more familiar kiwi (geddit) characters like a tuatara-like sphenodontian and mysticine bats.
Peter Schouten’s Proapteryx picture accompanied by more familiar kiwi (geddit) characters like a tuatara-like sphenodontian and mystacine bats.

So 2013 was a big year for our understanding of extinct birds. We know that phorusrhacids terrorised Europe, that early birds didn’t have scaly feet, a new understanding of the enantiornithe cladogram, et cetera. One of these discoveries is that small, unassuming New Zealand bird known as Proapteryx micromeros, a bird the size of a rail (and actually compared to the Banded Rail, Gallirallus philippensis, in terms of leg proportions) that stalked Aotearoa’s forests in the early Miocene, where is now Otago. It lived in a New Zealand already populated by a strange and alien fauna, composed of animals like terrestrial mekosuchine crocodiles, turtles, pythons and even a mysterious, poorly understood non-chiropteran mammal. Birds were already dominant, however, and the site where it was found, the Saint Bathans Formation, already had a very recognisable avifauna, with ducks, seagulls, passerines, herons, owlet-nightjars, hawks and even recognisable forms of Moa and Adzebill running around. While there were a few oddbirds here and there, like a palaelodid flamingo, the avifauna of Saint Bathans was distinctively modern, conforming to the Neogene bird faunas, with the odd, ancient birds already rendered into flightless giants while more derived and familiar bird groups dominated the skies.

There was, however, one component of the familiar avifauna in Saint Bathans that was absent, and that was the kiwi, the bizarre, nocturnal, terrestrially probing, hairy ratite that we all know and love. As the name implies, Proapteryx was an early form of kiwi, but it was a rather different animal. Unlike the moas and adzebills, it wasn’t already a large, flightless giant, but a still very small animal that, based on limb proportions, was probably still capable of flight or at least had evolved from then very recently flying ancestors. This kiwi wasn’t therefore an early relic from a time when birds could afford to not be neognaths, but a recent coloniser of the island continent like the pigeons and herons it co-existed with, and by all accounts a typical member of the Australasian avifauna of the period, making the absence of volant palaeognaths from modern Oz all the more conspicuous. It’s discovery bears therefore a lot of meaning in the study of not only kiwis, but also palaeognaths as a whole, and of the changes in avifauna in a landmass once presumed to have been exceptionally conservative.

1. It confirms that the known Palaeognath clades are [mainly] not the result of vicariance

The most obvious conclusion advertised in articles about this bird is that the ages old hypothesis that ratites all evolved from a common ancestor that diverged as Gondwanna split apart is effectively disproven. Previously, it had already been under fire across the 20th century, with genetic data connecting kiwis to australian ratites instead of moas, and Hackett et al. 2008 that demonstrated that palaeognath diversity as a whole is independent from the progression of Gondwanna’s split up (i.e. tinamous are more closely related to Australasian ratites than to rheas, elephant birds are more closely related to either than the indo-african ostriches, et cetera.). Proapteryx not only offers evidence that palaeognaths cross the Tasman Sea in the Miocene, well after New Zealand had already become an island, but also that kiwis evolved independently from moas, as Saint Bathans already preserves fossils of large, flightless dinornithids while it’s sole kiwi is a dimininutive flying or then recently flightless bird.

2. It implies a higher diversity of mid-Cenozoic palaeognaths than previously thought

While palaeognath fossils are rare, period, it’s clear that these birds were quite diverse in the Palaeogene. Fossil sites in Eurasia and North America dating bear fossils of birds known as “lithornithids”, a diverse menagerie of flying palaeognaths tentatively classified as a monophyletic clade, but actually more likely to represent a paraphyletic assemblage of birds leading to modern ratites, something especially likely when one examines basal ostriches like Palaeotis. “Lithornithids” disappear from the fossil site in the Oligocene, alongside many other laurasian bird clades, and with their extinction it was presumed that the only flying palaeognaths that remained were the already poorly-flying tinamous, surrendering the skies to neognath birds for the rest of the Cenozoic.

With the discovery of a flying kiwi dating to the Miocene, this obviously wasn’t the case. Proapteryx is a small bird, actually smaller than the largest known “lithornithids” such as Paracathartes, and it clearly evolved from animals that were very competent flyers, if it wasn’t a competent flyer itself, indicating the presence of rather generalistic flying palaeognaths in the Miocene of Australia and New Zealand. Not only that, since kiwis are most closely related to autralian cassowaries and emus, the presence of the already large, flightless Emuarius in the Oligocene of Australia suggests that aussie ratites were undergoing an adaptative radiation in the Oligocene and early Miocene, branching in at least two radically different ecological niches, instead of being reduced to flightless forms as previously thought. More volant palaeognaths are expected to turn up in Oligocene and Miocene fossil sites in mainland Oz, if they haven’t already and simply have been misidentified (as sadly often the case when dealing with fragmentary bird remains).

3. It offers a possible behaviorial connection between kiwis and “lithornithid grade” palaeognaths, and perhaps an insight to the ancestral ratite condition

While Proapteryx is explicitly contrasted against Lithornis in Worthy et al. 2013 (namely, in the morphology of the quadrate bone and associated elements), there are possible similarities between the paraphyletic “lithornithids” and kiwis raised by it’s discovery. “Lithornithids”, while most likely subjected to a wide variety of lifestyles, generally possess long, slender jaws, which have been implicated as having been used in probing, often compared to those of shorebirds; given their hypothesised arboreal tendencies, they might have been ecologically analogous to hoopoes and woodcocks, introducing their jaws on the soil or in cavities in the trees to search for insects and other small prey.

This obvious raises a strong parallel to modern kiwis, which are birds specialised to probe on the New Zealand forest substrates for foraging, having sensor pits, the nostrils at the tip of the jaws, vibrissae and other adaptations that evolved to detect prey in this manner. Previously, these weird features were thought to be the product of island life, but the discovery of a volant kiwi might very well establish these as having predated flightlessness, presumably having evolved in “lithornithids” and having simple been retained, if slightly refined, in extant kiwis.

Indeed, it might very well suggest that kiwis are actually the most ecologically conservative of all extant palaeognaths, having remained in a probing, woodcock like lifestyle while rheas, emus and ostriches became plains dwelling herbivores, cassowaries became frugivores and tinamous became fowl-like omnivores and granivores.

4. It offers insight about the evolution of kiwi flightlessness

In the New Zealand that Proapteryx lived in, mekosuchine crocodiles offered predation to the native avifauna, while small mammals of uncertain affinities competed with them. It is easy to understand why moas, waterfowl and adzebills became massive and wingless, as there simply weren’t any other animals occupying the roles of large herbivores and of opportunistic carnivores respectively, but the ecology of Saint Bathans did not showcase the sheer variety of flightless birds that New Zealand is famous for, implicating that the competitive and predatorial pressure from the crocodiles, mammals and perhaps even the local lepidosaurs and turtles was a restricting factor in that biota. Certainly not the environment where one would expect a flightless insectivore, and yet the kiwi outlived the competing mammals in it’s island continent.

It is possible that one of the more bizarre aspects of kiwi biology, the proportionally massive eggs, evolved in response to flightless in such an environment, allowing larger and more independent chicks, both the eggs and juveniles being less vulnerable to mammal or mekosuchine predation. It is now clear that this isn’t the result of allometry, as kiwis evolved from small flying birds and aren’t dwarfs as previously thought. Thus, kiwis may have responded to a rather competitive environment, instead of being the result of 20-16 million years of lack of negative pressures.

5. It offers insight about the progression of palaeognath avifaunas in the Neogene

As showcased before, Proapteryx is a game changer in our understanding of palaeognaths, implicating diversity previously unheard off. It is also an indicator of a rather conspicuous faunal turn over, as there aren’t any more flying palaeognaths in Oz, in spite of the continent’s overall rather conservative bird faunas. Given the rather obvious diversity of many derived bird groups in the Oligocene and Miocene of Australia, and the definite presence of many recognisable birds in the Saint Bathans Formation, such as passerines, rails, shorebirds, owlet-nightjars, parrots and pigeons, competition and eventual ecological displacement by neognaths seem to be unlikely, at least on on a systematic, large scale, especially when “lithornithid grade” palaeognaths don’t seem to have an equivalent in modern australasian avifaunas. Rather, it is possible that Australia’s late Miocene/Pliocene climatic changes spelt doom for Proapteryx like birds, as they have for several other volant terrestrial insectivores like mystacine bats. Flying palaeognaths seem to generally have fared poorly in conditions of mass drying, as evidenced by the disappearence of “lithornithids” from Laurasia and possibly of non-aepyornithid palaeognaths from Madagascar, the only clade seemingly adapting well being nothurine tinamous, which diversified in South America’s Miocene grasslands. By contrast, flightless palaeognaths have basically prospered, albeit in rather different ecological niches, the patterns of which worth investigating in the near future.


Miocene fossils show that kiwi (Apteryx, Apterygidae)
are probably not phyletic dwarves (Worthy et al. 2013)

Paleognathous Birds from the Early Tertiary of the Northern Hemisphere (Peter W. 1988)

Jones et al. 2009

Miocene mammal reveals a Mesozoic ghost lineage on insular New Zealand, southwest Pacific (Tennyson et al. 2006)

Hackett et al. 2008

Turvey et. al 2005

Phillips et al. 2010

On The Origins Of Flight: No Gliders?

All things considered, vertebrate flight is the ultimate triumph of animal bioengineering, producing active locomotion on the thinnest of availiable mediums, releasing the individual from the ground and opening it to an entirely new realm to navigate upon. Flight has led to massive adaptative radiations and ecological niches completly impossible for terrestrial or aquatic animals to explore, and it leads to exaptations for other credible feats, like extremely effective lungs and large brains. Flight is freedom, and there are ten thousand reasons as to why we pitiful land primates have envied birds, bats and insects, and most surely pterosaurs if they were still alive.

Yet, when one looks at the groups of flying animals that have existed, one thing becomes apparent: it’s very, very rare for an organism to develop true, powered flight. Birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs are and were incredibly speciose and morphologically diverse, but immense adaptative radiations were all resulted from a mere four successful attempts at being an aeronaut. All the +10,000 living bird species, and their possibly millions of extinct relatives? Descendents from a single dinosaurian aeronaut back in the Jurassic, whose aerial prowess quickly kickstarted an adaptative radiation more or less at the same time pterosaurs were during their golden age. Pterosaurs themselves, from the miniscule anurognathids to the ginormous azhdarchids and ornithocheiroids, all descended from a currently unidentified form of sauropsid that took to the skies in the Triassic, a single species possibly akin to Scleromochlus. Going hundreds of million years further in time, we have the single common ancestor of over 60% of all animal life on the planet, the winged arthropods, and forward in time to the earliest Cenozoic we have a small, shrew like mammal who has made ghastly wings out of it’s hands.

Four species. That’s not even 0.01% of all animal life, no matter how mind crushingly diverse their descendents would be.

The sheer minority of successful aeronauts becomes even more puzzling when one witnesses the incredible diversity of gliding and parachuting animals, both from the past and presence. Among synapsids, extensive gliding has evolved at least 11 times, with the earliest known gliding mammal known from the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary, the bizarre Volaticotherium, while squamates have produced gliders among all major lineages, to say nothing of the sheer amount of Triassic gliding reptiles. Some frogs developed long toes and webs that seem like smaller mockeries of bat wings, while countless fish species have turned their pectoral fins with airfoils and taken to the air; in fact, one lineage of said fish, Thoracopterigids, are quite possibly the oldest vertebrate group to have taken into the air. To say nothing of all the spiders and other arhtropods that glide and parachute, with webs or sheer chitinous extentions, as well as of the pelagic flying squid.

Yet, once again, all this incredibly diverse menagerie has achieved nothing akin to the powered flight of birds, insects, bats and pterosaurs, with the possible exception of a few fish, which propell themselves into the air with their pectoral fins. Indeed, many of these groups have become extinct, with no known close relatives and certainly no radiation of aerial critters derived from them.

It has been suggested that the presence of aerial vertebrates would have limited the presence of availiable niches for experimental flyers, something that falls extremely falt when A) birds evolved at the peak of pterosaurian diversity and bats when birds were already very well established (and posssibly even further back, when pterosaurs were still around), B) the idea that any of these groups have ever outcompeted or competitively excluded each other is at best severel uncircumstancial, and C) there’s plenty of ecological niches each individual group has occupied that the others haven’t (i.e. birds haven’t ever produced robust, boar-like terrestrial molluscivores like dsungaripterids, bats have never produced freshwater filter feeders, et cetera). Gliding animals also don’t seem to competitively exclude each other, so there’s little reason why animals in between gliding and full volancy wouldn’t have enough ecological space to exist.

An alternative option is what is reflected by an examination of gliding animal groups: gliding simply does not translate into flight, simply never leads to powered volancy, and that the flying vertebrates we know and love, as well as insects, have simply evolved under extremely anomalous sets of behaviour completly unrelated to gliding.

This is what I’m going to explore today.

What Living Gliders Tell Us

Colugos are about as close to bat-grade as any known non-chiropteran mammal has ever got...and that's as far as they will ever go.
Colugos are about as close to bat-grade as any known non-chiropteran mammal has ever got…and that’s as far as they will ever go.

Living animals and their extreme speciation compared to their long gone cousins can be exceptionally deceiving when it comes to studying the past, but they nonetheless offer a few clues about how flight may have aroused within the known flying vertebrates. As mentioned previously, there is a conspicuous absence of gliding vertebrates in a state of tentative flight, while the few fish that jump using their pectoral fins are not related to any gliding species. This alone can be considered pretty damning for the hypothesis that flight evolved from gliding, though it’s obviously not enough to establish a certain correlation.

Among gliding vertebrates, we witness a very wide range of adaptations for aerial locomotion, from the simple membranes of Holaspis to the complex airfoils of gliding squirrels. Some of these gliders have gone into extra lengths to acquire aerodynamical prowess, developing elaborate tail rudders (Ptychozoon), unique structural support for their wing membranes (such as the cartilage spurs of several flying squirrels and the ribbed wings of several squamates), proportionally massive wings (colugos, Draco lizards, et cetera), and even airfoil adaptations convergent with the aerodynamic design of flying animals (Exocoetidae). Some of these critters can be considered true aerial animals of their own right, travelling long distances on air and spending a good portion of their time gliding, though of course they are far more limited than true flyers.

Within the massive variety of living gliders, it’s evident that some will never develop powered flight: the rib wings of Draco and similar squamates, for example, cannot develop the necessary musculature and articulation to form anything other than a simple parachuting airfoil, and indeed extinct sauropsids with similar adaptations didn’t seem to have gone anywhere beyond a few “one shots”. Likewise, as suggested by Mark Witton 2013, flight is presumed to be unlikely to develop in ectothermic animals, as a warm blooded metabolism is likely a necessary exaptation in order to provide for the energetic demands of true volancy. This leaves pretty much every single living non-mammalian glider alive today as invalid candidates for powered flight, and therefore ill-suited models for how flight developed in bats, birds and pterosaurs. Thankfully, the menagerie of living gliding mammals is large enough to supply enough samples as to determine whereas flight can develop from gliding or not. And within these, two groups in particular can be held in particular regard.

The first, erroneously named “flying lemurs”, are often described as the most aerially adapted of all gliding mammals and just a step beneath the full volancy of chiropterans, having a well developed protopatagium and uropatagium, very long limbs that produce a massive brachiopatagium, and even a significant cheiropatagium, the fingers being quite long and displaying well developed webbing; in total, a colugo’s patagium is as massive as geometrically possible (Kathy MacKinnon 1984), and all the animal needs to develop functional wings is to elongate the hand more. They are capable of gliding for as much as 70 meters without losing altitude significantly, and their wing membranes indeed often an effective aerodynamic profile, the propatagium angled in the same as as that of birds and bats (and, presumably, as in pterosaur), the fingers serve as bastard wings and the uropatagium as an effective rudder (see image above). Such is their aerial competence that they were for the longest time assumed to be stem-bats, a relictual lineage wrestled out of the skies by more derived chiropterans, but genetic and morphological studies firmly place them as sister-taxa to primates, meaning that they became aeronauts independently (fringe “megabats are primates” pseudo-science nonwithstanding).

Thus, instead of being “living fossils”, colugos represent a lineage of gliding mammals that came very close to volancy… and stopped right there. The fact that the oldest members of this clade may date as far back as the Paleocene, when the first recognisable bats flapped their wings, means that they presumably had enough time to go go an extra mile and become true flyers, though in the interest of fairness we do not know if any extinct dermopterans were capable of gliding and if the aerial adaptations seen in modern forms are extremely recent. Colugos are specialised folivores, so it has been argued that powered flight is simply out of reach for these mammals, as folivory provides relatively little energy input, and gliding is a supposedly cheap way to travel around, while flight is obviously very energy demanding.

However, recent studies showcase that gliding is actually very energy taxing for colugos (Byrnes, G., Libby, T., Lim, N. T.-L. and Spence, A. J. (2011)), wasting as much as 1.5 times more energy by travelling through the air than by clambering amidst the branches. Part of the reason this is so energy demanding is due to the need to climb in order to achieve enough altitude for the next glide, often needing to climb as much as 8 meters for a non-problematic 30-50 meter “flight”, trouble flying animals do not have to deal with. Indeed, based on the studies’ conclusions, flight would have been a relatively cheaper mode of locomotion, and likewise the one flying animal with the closest lifestyle, the hoatzin, manages to be a specialised folivore and waste relatively little energy by engaging in short bursts of flight, less impressive than the colugo’s majestic “soaring” but certainly without the need to climb 8 meters in order to move around.

Thus, flight in colugos would have been relatively advantageous, and yet they have not made any further leaps into volancy throught the Cenozoic.

The other group, the iconic flying squirrels, come right behind colugos in terms of aerial speciation. While not having such extensive patagia, flying squirrels have well defined propatagia, brachiopatagia and uropatagia, and most importantly they are the only gliding mammals that have elongated the forelimb – the first step into the formation of a true wing -, developing unique cartilaginous wrist spurs that support the dystalmost part of the brachiopatagium. True to form, this development makes them even better gliders than colugos, capable of “flights” of 90 meters and more, and are seemingly better at steering in the air (Flaherty, E.A.; M. Ben-David, W.P. Smith (2010)).

No similar studies have been performed on whereas they spend more energy gliding, but if the studies on colugos are of any indication then flying squirrels should logically be also subjected to the same energetic pressures. Being omnivores, they’re also in a better position to develop powered flight, and in fact they presumably would benefit more from flight, as it would reduce energy espenses and aid them massively when foraging. Flying squirrels are thought to be a monophyletic lineage dating to the late Oligocene, which would have granted these rodents enough time to develop powered flight. Yet, as obvious, they remain exclusive, if particularly specialised, gliders. Once again, competition appears to not be an issue: no bats, and indeed no birds or even other sciurids, forage in the same manner as flying squirrels.

A third, ancient lineage of living gliding mammals is represented by the anomalures. Relatively basal rodents, these animals have been around since the Eocene, and not only haven’t become true aeronauts, they are also relatively cumbersome gliders, having a small propatagium and a bizarre brachiopatagium supported by an elbow spur, that helps stabilise the membrane but reduces any significant expansion of it. Flight, in this case, might had been prevented by the “flaw in design” rather than lack of opportunity.

Gliding marsupials are recent arrivals, having evolved around the latest Miocene; with relatively simple wing membranes, gliding is still on it’s infant steps for most of these animals, let alone powered flight. Outside of these lineages, there are a vast variety of mammals that have been reported to parachute, but of these only the sifakas and their possible rudimentary patagia show any possible adaptations for aerial locomotion in living mammals.

With at least two long lived lineages of specialised gliding mammals with no significant ecological competition in the form of bats or birds, and that are subjected to ecological pressures that favour powered flight, as well as almost certainly several long gone and unreccorded gliding mammal clades, it appears that gliding in mammals is not conductive to powered flight. It is possible that the necessary step for true volancy, the wing stroke, simply does not occur to animals “hardwired” to keep the wing stable during gliding, making the very speciation for gliding ironically the very reason why powered aerial locomotion is out of reach.

Of course, to strike out living gliders is not enough to determine whereas gliding is inconsistent with flight. To this end, examining true flyers is of extreme importance.

What Bats Tell Us

Baby bats appearently flutter when airborne, which has been at times interpreted as a possible indicator that the earliest bats weren't gliding.
Baby bats appearently flutter when airborne, which has been at times interpreted as a possible indicator that the earliest bats weren’t gliding.

The idea that bats are not descendents of gliders goes as far back in time as Glenn L. Jepson’s Bats: Origins and Evolution (1970), but it was more recently explored in detail in Kevin Padian et al. 2011. Here, the observance of fluttering in juvenile bats, as well as the very early evolution of echolocation in these animals, has provoked a hypothesis that, rather than descending from gliders, bats evolved from cave-dwelling mammals that specialised in stalking aerial insects, using echolocation to guise themselves in the darkness and fluttering in order to control their descent. While without doubt a rather fantastical idea, it did correlate to Weatherbee SD et al. 2006, in which the development of the bat patagium has been noted as rather atypical, developing first the specialised cheiropatagium and latter the rest of the patagia, inconsistent with the development in other gliding mammals but certainly on par with fluttering as means to develop the wing.

Later, Padian et al. 2013 dismissed the idea of cave-dwellers, but the emphasis on the hypothesis that early bats fluttered instead of gliding remained. In this scenario, creatures like Onychonycteris see themselves in a more plausible scenario: as arboreal mammals that weren’t that different from modern gliding mammals, but that flapped their arms to control their fall rather than simply letting themselves fall with style. Combined with the impetus to capture aerial prey, the drive to develop large, webbed hands occured, and subsequently it would only be a matter of time until true flight emerged.

This hypothesis, while so far only barely supported, certainly explains why bats achieved what no other mammal managed in a such a short amount of time. If it is a correct accessment, it defenitely parts mammalian flight from mammalian gliding, relying on the presence of arm movement since it’s very earliest stages, something that by itself is very rare among parachuting mammals. This also explains why bats managed to achieve profecient aerial hawking early on when birds and pterosaurs seemingly only developed it much later, having evolved from day on to snare aerial prey.

What Birds Tell Us

RPR illustrated (author unknown; I desire clarification so I can give the proper credit)
RPR illustrated (author unknown; I desire clarification so I can give the proper credit)

How avian flight developed has been one of the most debated topics in paleontology across it’s existence as a discipline. You’ve all heard about gliding, about running and beating the wings like a manic, WAIR, et cetera.

At this moment in time, the debate is still long from settled, but it seems that a few options can be safely struck down as unlikely. The running hypothesis, for example, has never witnessed much support, and nowadays it is rarely defended outside of conjunction with WAIR; the fact that most known early paravians had hindwings also renders this possibility unlikely.

With Dyke, G., de Kat, R., Palmer, C., van der Kindere, J., Naish, D. & Ganapathisubramani, B. 2013, gliding should also be out of the picture: the most famous supposed glider, Microraptor, was appearently a really lousy aeronaut, ill suited for long distance gliding. Therefore, as with bats, avian flight was not derived from gliding, and the theropods that rose into the skies did so in methods equally as active as their chiropteran successors, by flapping their wings.

Thankfully, there is a menagerie of ideas about how birds flapped their way into true volancy:

Wing Assisted Incline Running (W.A.I.R.), in which dinosaurs runned up trees by flapping their arms, like modern terrestrial birds;

The Leaping Grapple, in which dinosaurs leaped at their prey, using the forelimbs to generate power to elevate themselves.

– RPR, or “ripper”, in which dinosaurs flapped their forelimbs to retain balance when eating their prey, much like modern raptors.

Of these, WAIR has gone under the most scrutiny due to the assumption that non-ornithothorace paravians could not provide enough of a vertical stroke in order to produce WAIR. Ignoring several examples in which this it has been argued that early paravians could provide vertical strokes, Holtz argues that a vertical stroke isn’t necessary to generate WAIR (, so WAIR is within the realm of possibilities. However, the fact that WAIR is only observed in Neognathae, with no evidence among living palaeognaths, may cast suspicion into it’s veracity.

The other two suggestions are reliant on the assumption that early paravians were predatory, an assumption progressively considered less plausible given the extensive evidence of omnivory in paravians like troodontids, oviraptorans and microraptorids. Likewise, forms suspected of using these, like eudromaeosaurs, were presumably too large and specialised to be ancestral to birds. However, it is very likely that similar processes, unrelated to predation, were what developed dinosaur arms into avian wings.

Regardless of the method, it appears that exaptations for flight occured very early in theropod evolution, as the evidence of scutes in Concavenator implicates the presence of hindwings in non-coelurosaur theropods.

What Pterosaurs Tell Us

A series of Hypothetical Pterosaur Ancestors (HYPTAS) by Maija Karala (Eurwentala), in turn inspired by Mark Witton's own HYPTAS.
A series of Hypothetical Pterosaur Ancestors (HYPTAS) by Maija Karala (Eurwentala), in turn inspired by Mark Witton’s own HYPTAS.

Currently, pterosaurian origins are sorrounded in mystery. The most accepted hypothesis is that they’re sister taxa with Dinosauromorpha, and are especially closely related to the small archosaur known as Scleromochlus, though even this tells us very little about the hypothetical pterosaur ancestors, given the morphological diversity of early avemetatarsalians. If we go by animals like Scleromochlus, we find ourselves in an interesting position: while pterosaurs are quadrupedal animals with powerful forelimbs and plantigrade hindlimbs, Scleromochlus is a bipedal animal with long, digitigrade hindlimbs and small forelimbs. In the 90’s, this wouldn’t have been something hard to invision, but now that we know pterosaurs quadrupedally launched and were generally happy running on all fours, it seems very bizarre indeed.

Scleromochlus does not seem like a gliding animal, to say the least, and although basal pterosaurs suggest an arboreal ancestry, gliding is not necessarily on the equation. A suggestion posited by David Peters (I know, but this doesn’t involve squamates, so it’s okay) is that the key of the pterosaurian wing, the massive fourth finger, evolved as a display device, which would make sense in these original bipedal runners, with the forelimbs free to occupy other functions. With time, these display devices would have become larger and more elaborate, and eventually be useful in WAIR or fluttering. Eventually, once the wing was large enough, flight would have become possible, and subsequently the animals would have shifted to quadrupedality as the wing membranes connected the limbs. This hypothesis would also explain the elongated fifth toe, which would have also evolved as a display device, before becoming an effective support for the cruropatagium.

As of this writting, the fog sorrounding pterosaurian origins is still thick, and therefore one can only imagine how these animals first took to the sky.


Based on birds and bats, as well as modern gliders, gliding appears to be effectively independent from flight, gliding animals seemingly unable to produce powered flight and animals that have evolved powered flight having developed it in unusual circumstances. Exceptions might exist, including possibly pterosaurs, but as it stands vertebrate flight has only been able to evolve from behaviours that prommote forelimb movement, with aerodynamic speciation not leading at all to volancy.

Homophobia in the paleontological community?

Khaan mckennai specimens reffered to as "Romeo and Juliet". Putting aside the godawful ignorance about the play's point, there's no traits in the specimens that assign them to a specific gender.
Khaan mckennai specimens reffered to as “Romeo and Juliet”. Putting aside the godawful ignorance about the play’s point, there’s no observed traits in the specimens that assign them to a specific gender. People literally just saw two specimens together and decided it was an heterosexual mating pair.

One thing’s great about science: it only cares about accurate results. Nothing else matters: your religion, your race, your gender is nobody’s concern, so long as you follow proper procedures, conduct ethical experiments and not clouding your results with bias. White, straight men still happen to be the more famous and visible faces of modern paleontology, but many of the more field changing discoveries still rightfully belong to female paleontologists like Teresa Maryańska, whose Gobi desert expeditions have offered our first understanding of asian pachycephalosaurs. And, as with all sciences, it’s international reach pretty much grants representations by most cultures and ethnicies; my own home country has it’s own share of voices, most notably Miguel Telles Antunes.

Paleontology is particularly beneficient in that it is relatively invulnerable to political meddling; aside from the studies on human ancestry, there is no major government interest in affecting paleontological studies negatively. After all, the conclusions about an ornithocheirid specimen from the Cambridge Greensand are very unlikely to damage or boost the Prime Minister’s career – as oposed to, say, research on fossil fuels -, so the brittish government won’t bother to affect pterosaur studies in any way, besides maybe cutting funds if they feel like it. Only creationists enjoy a capacity to cause damage to paleontological studies, and their range of influence is thankfully relatively minor in the western world, only affecting the aforementioned human ancestry studies.

So, if paleontology is not only pragmatic and inclusive in relation to gender, culture and ethnicy, but also generally unaffected by non-creationist political meddling, why am I making a post about a form of prejudice, homophobia, being present in the paleontological community? Sadly, because it found a way, as usual.

Hide The [Paleontologist] Lesbians

Franz Nopsca, an infamous hungarian paleontologist (and nobility) who shot himself and his lover. Throught his life, the Baron had struggled with his sexuality, which he considered "unnatural", a tragically ironic conclusion that could have been avoided if there weren't scientific biases against the study of animal sexuality back then.
Franz Nopsca, an infamous hungarian paleontologist (and nobility) who shot himself and his lover. Throught his life, the Baron had struggled with his sexuality, which he considered “unnatural”, a tragically ironic conclusion that could have been avoided if there weren’t scientific biases against the study of animal sexuality back then.

Because science is again pragmatic and result focused, paleontologists are best known for their research; in theory, it’s a meritocratic affair, with the individuals being more famous the more groundbreacking their studies are. And, as with all meritocratic affairs, personality comes second to work: Robert T. Bakker has more limelights due to his research than he does due to being a pentecostal, for example. In theory, at least, it’s a fair system that encourages a focus on the actual subject than the researcher: you can be honest and open about yourself, so long as you are both competent and productive.

In theory. In practise, this tends to be rather arbitarily and hypocritically enforced. Putting aside employment practises and discrimination, how much visibility a researcher gets is variable. Some, like the aforementioned Bakker, are key components of the paleontological community’s public perception, but other researchers with just as much productivity and groundbreacking research are outright shoved into the background, like Kristina Curry Rogers, who is to Titanosauria what Bakker is to Morrison Formation theropods, yet rewarded far less. This is why, despiste the number of female paleontologists out there, they are obscure enough to need posts like this to gain the recognition they deserve. For a system that supposedly congratulates the inovative researcher, it sure attempts to not be such.

This, of course, leads us to the obvious, unconfortable conclusion: homosexuality is a taboo among paleontologists. Most LGBT researchers are not particularly open about their sexuality, and while it’s hard to demonstrate homophobic pressure, as it stands their visibility is reduced to an extreme minimum. Perhaps the best barometer of this is none other than Baron von Nopsca, to whom we owe the first understanding of the Hateg Island dwarves, early hypothesis about dinosaur sexual dimorphism – albeit rather erroneous -, early studies on the bird-dinosaur connection, and perhaps even the concept of palaeobiology, yet he is very, very sheldomly listed among the paleontological pioneers of his time. You’re more likely to hear about his murder-suicide than his relevance in his field, a bitter reversal of what being a scientist should entail.

Lets pretend it doesn’t exist in Nature

At the very least 30% of albatross couples are female/female. When was the last time you heard people talking about similar percentages in pseudodontorns?
At the least 30% of albatross couples are female/female. There’s no reason to think similar numbers wouldn’t have occured in extinct archosaurs, yet all discovered [supposed] mating pairs are reffered as heterosexual, with various levels of contrivance.

Homosexuality is overwhelmingly present in nature, being recorded in basically all types of multiple-sexed organisms, from fruit flies to cetaceans. Birds in particular have had their same-sex mating behaviour well documented: entire seagull and waterfowl colonies/flocks have been registered to be composed of female/female pairings and male/male pairings respectively, which in at least some forms like black swans may reflect an unusual yet successful breeding strategy, as same-sex pairings may be able to protect and provide for the chicks more effectively than “straight pairings”, as for some undiscernible reason “cheating” appears to be less common. The passerines known as cocks-of-the-rocks have been reccorded to have as much as 40% of their sexual activity to be between males, while some individuals don’t even bother touching females; these are birds that have gone through the same sexual selection procedures as ungulate mammals, developing extreme sexual dimorphism to supposedly drive away members of the same sex and attract females, and yet they “delight in homosexuality”. Same with ostriches, same with birds-of-paradise, same with peafowl. Mallards, the infamous rapists of the avian world, not only have been documented treating other drakes the same way they treat hens, even down to “gang banging”, but also engaging in homosexual necrophilia; homosexual necrophilia has also been reccorded in swallows and frogmouths. And, of course, there’s the famous male/male penguin, flamingo and vulture couples in zoos all over the world.

With so many cases of homosexual behaviour among living dinosaurs, you’d think the dead ones were also this… diverse. Yet, as far as most researchers are concerned, all dead dinosaurs were “straight”: all “couples”, or even specimens found in seemingly non-agressive poses, are reffered to as heterosexual mating pairs.

The most infamous and downright ridiculous example are the two specimens of Khaan mckennai known as “Romeo and Juliet”. This fossil, two skeletons of the oviraptor species found in extreme proximity of each other, are the species’ holotype (IGM 100/1127), and not only have been interpreted as a “couple” on extremely loose grounds (they were found together and weren’t fighting; that’s the reason why they’re called “Romeo and Juliet”. I guess the Messel Pit was a massive inter-species orgy then), but are considered male and female on every looser grounds. There are literally no traits in the holotype that favour one gender over the other.

In extinct ornithodires, sex is generally determined either by extreme sexually dimorphous structures, like the crests of pterosaurs, or by two main “subtle” features: the pelvis cannal, which is supposedly wider in females, and femur medullary bone, present in females; both are features adapted for the production of eggs. We do know that the former may be of some help – Darwinopterus does have clearly female specimens, one of them preserved in the process of laying an egg, with wider pelvic cannals, while troodontids and oviraptors do show rather extreme pelvic cannal widths can may be reasonably attributed to different genders -, but it is frequently subjected to error, as the cannal’s width in consistency to the animal’s sex is hard to predict except in extreme examples; this is why Sue’s actual gender is something of a controversy, as tyrannosaur pelvis cannal widths are more difficult to accurately estimate than previously thought. Medullary bone tissue is of more help, as it is indeed only significantly observed in females during egg production. Only three major medullary bone samples have been obtained from non-avian dinosaurs, from Tyrannosaurus rex, Allosaurus fragilis and Tenontosaurus tilletti; “Romeo and Juliet” currently remain untested for medullary bone, and the pelvis bone widths have not been accurately measured either.

On other words, they truly are just two random Khaan assumed to be an heterosexual mating pairing based on close proximity.

Not only we have thus forced and arbitary gendering, we also have something of a strange agression towards non-“heteronormative” (i.e. heterosexual pairings and polygynous lekking) breeding strategies. Just witness the bile thrown at “Evolution of classical polyandry: three steps to female emancipation” (Malte Andersson, 2005), a paper that [very briefly] suggests polyandry in non-avian dinosaurs. If we are to believe some of the responses, male Triceratops forming harems and forcing intercourse on females is “normal”, while theropod females defending brooding several males brooding their cluthes like modern jaçanas is “unnatural”, “falsetious” and “unscientific”. What?

We know that in oviraptors and troodontids the males – or at least morphs with absurdly narrow pelvic cannals – were the sole incubators of the eggs, much like in modern ratites. At least a few specimens may also bear another adult as well, yet these have been dismissed as “potential heterosexual mating pairs” without further study on the animals’ pelvic width or medullary bones. From the looks of it, adult females or at least animals with wider pelvic cannals have not been reported in association with nests, which may very well mean that these specimens may be homosexual pairings. A potentially revolutionary discovery, not only casually dismissed, but outright “straight washed”.

If I can’t see it, it does not exit, henceforth it is unnatural

So, we have LGBT researchers shoved into the background and direct erasure. We have basically the worst “indirectly hostile” factors for homophobia widespread and accepted in the paleontological community. Lack of visibility is the main factor in the prevalence of homophobia, far more so than “propaganda” and violent statements, as the still immense ignorance towards animal same-sex sexual behaviour still shows. Lack of visibility also leads to the lack of ressonance, which increases the already cancerous feeling of isolation. This ignorance and these feelings led to the violent death of Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, a man who had no religious reasons for his murder-suicide, but a tragic lack of understanding that his feelings were not ill or aberrant.

The irony is all too bitter.

More evidence of megapode style superprecociality

“This egg position is not seen in living birds, with the exception of the basal galliform megapodes who place their eggs within mounds of vegetation or burrows. This accumulation reveals a novel nesting behaviour in Mesozoic Aves that was perhaps shared with the non-avian and phylogenetically more basal troodontid theropods.”

I could deride Jose Diaz on his “theropods behaved exactly like mammals in regards to their young” comments and own derision, but I feel that science speaks for itself.