June 4, 2008
Pterosaurs – those winged lizards that dotted the Jurassic skies like seagulls in a sunset – have been radically reimagined in a recent paper in the open-access journal PLOS One.
If you read the same dinosaur books as me, you probably think of pterosaurs as sort of giant, reptilian bats: rubbery-winged gargoyles that swooped low over swampy, (parrot-infested?) lagoons, snapping at fish with long, bony beaks.
But paleontologists Mark Witton and Darren Naish think this may be the wrong picture, at least for the largest pterosaurs, including the giraffe-sized Quetzalcoatlus. Its beak was too bulky and its neck too stiff for snatching fish on the wing; and its feet were too dainty to keep all that pterosaur bulk from sinking into the mud (if, as another popular guess holds, Q patrolled muddy shores like an overgrown sandpiper).
Instead, the pair thinks the creatures stalked through grasslands on all fours, snapping at smaller reptiles and insects much the way storks feed today.
The drawing above is an even bigger pterosaur called Hatzegopteryx. Other news outlets carried Witton’s drawings of Quetzalcoatlus on the wing, or snarfing baby dinosaurs. I like this drawing, though. It gives you a certain sense of… vulnerability.
Check Witton’s Flickr stream for more great art, as well as a lively retelling of how he and Naish developed their new idea. My favorite part: Witton first got the idea during lulls in his part-time job as a dishwasher:
At such times, your mind tends to wander, and you end up doing some rather strange things. Like, for instance, using your dishwater to experiment with different types of aerial predation of pelagic organisms. I did them all: skim-feeding, dip-feeding, diving…
As a former professional dishwasher, I’d just like to say: Mark, you’ve done us proud.
(Image: Mark Witton)
June 2, 2008
One catch in trying to cover the wide world of science with just two Gist posts weekly is that follow-ups can take a while. So if you’ve been worrying yourself sick over the fate of the pandas of Wolong or the terrifying 7-minute ordeal of the Phoenix Mars Lander, here’s an update.
The pandas, it turned out, were not quite as well off as they appeared to be in the first few days after the tragic Chengdu earthquake. Two pandas were injured and six went missing, in addition to nearly 100 people that were killed or injured in and around the Wolong research center. The Chinese government had to ship in more than two tons of emergency panda rations, including bamboo, apples, soybeans and eggs.
At the same time, eight two-year-old pandas were removed from Wolong and taken to Beijing, where they will be mascots for the upcoming Summer Olympics. The Associated Press has a short video of the pandas’ arrival in Beijing, complete with charming bamboo munching. Meanwhile, the Wolong center struggles to recover after landslides demolished several buildings. Luckily, all the pandas are alive and accounted for, if somewhat unnerved by the ordeal. The Xinhua newspaper reports that some are benefiting from “psychological counseling.” We’re still sending warm wishes to the pandas – and humans – of Sichuan.
The news coming from the north pole of Mars is decidedly more upbeat. This particular Gist-er spent a critical seven minutes of Memorial Day weekend watching the landing on NASA TV (anyone else? anyone?). The footage consisted mostly of people in blue polo shirts standing around a control room, listening to a countdown delivered by an Austrian-accented announcer. But it was still somehow gripping, if only because something like a remote-control landing on another planet could possibly sound so routine.
After touchdown, the news came fast and furious. In a masterstroke, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a shot of Phoenix on its way down, parachute open. We landed on a broad, frost-heaved plain that was suitably red. A minor hitch in radio link on the second day merely reminded us (was it a stray cosmic ray, perhaps?) of how delicate these space operations are. On the third day, out came the robotic arm. It was minus 111 degrees Fahrenheit out there.
The fossilized Scandinavian parrots are still dead (arguably).
(Image: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)