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The Pterosaurs: From Deep Time by David M.…

The Pterosaurs: From Deep Time (2005)

by David M. Unwin

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Being something of an omnivorous reader, I came across a story on National Geographic online about how giant Pterosaurs took flight by a leap from all fours. Since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs (yes, yes I know, quibblers, pterosaurs aren’t dinosaurs), so of course this story caught my eye. With it was a striking scale illustration of a man, a giraffe and a giant pterosaur called a Hatzegopteryx. What a beast! And it flew! With my curiosity piqued, it was time to look into these creatures further.

I turned to David Unwin’s The Pterosaurs from Deep Time, the most up-to-date work on these remarkable creatures. Unwin, the curator of the Humboldt Natural History Museum in Berlin, has created an excellent source for anyone interested in these creatures. It’s not a species-by-species breakdown, but an examination of pterosaurs as a whole. As such it’s great, but a few points really stood out for me.

Unwin’s explanation of how pterosaurs (or anything for that matter) become fossilized is fantastic. It really drives home the sheer improbability that any animal’s remains would be preserved to the present day. Conditions must be so finely tuned as to be almost impossible-which would account for the enormous gaps we have in the fossil record. For instance, almost all the pterosaur species we know about lived in coastal areas or near lakes and lagoons. What of the rest of the world? So far, we really don’t know. This means we don’t really know about their origins, as the most primitive types of pterosaurs seem to burst out fully-formed, like Minerva. Unwin conjectures that the earliest pterosaurs were gliders who eventually became flappers, then flyers, but we haven’t and are unlikely to find these primitive pterosaurs, as the arboreal environment they would have emerged in is not conductive to fossilization of such fragile animals.

In 2004 the first pterosaur eggs were discovered which answered the question of why there weren’t any songbird-sized pterosaurs. The answer was that from the moment of birth, pterosaurs could fly and take care of themselves. As they grew, they filled a different niche in the ecology. So, instead of smaller species and larger species existing side-by-side, there were older and younger pterosaurs eating different things, a rather unusual arrangement, very unlike that of birds or bats today.

The case of active versus passive flying is addressed in the eighth chapter. Unwin makes a strong case for pterosaurs being active flyers, and in some ways, even better than flyers than birds or bats are today. More remarkable fossils show the structure of the flight membranes, or patagia, which could be tensed and relaxed as needed, a complex action requiring quite a bit of brain-power. Even the largest of the flyers, the pteranodontia and azhdarchidae (of which the Hatzegopteryx was a member), flapped some in flight, though they probably spent most of the time as soarers like albatrosses today.

The Pterosaurs from Deep Time is beautifully illustrated, with color paintings of many of the described creatures. It’s written in a readable style for non-experts (like myself) and is actually quite funny in a few parts (the beginning of the postscript is hilarious). Anyone interested in the prehistoric world will profit from reading this. ( )
  Wolcott37 | Dec 12, 2009 |
All your questions about pterosaurs answered and a sly tip of the wing to Monty Python to boot ( )
  mudmusher | Mar 1, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 013146308X, Hardcover)

Here is the first complete portrait of the legendary flying dragons of deep time–the pterosaurs–designed for non-specialists, yet founded on the real science of these bizarre creatures.  Presented lucidly and accessibly by one of the world’s leading experts, David Unwin’s book is built on a mountain of new fossil discoveries and the latest research. 


About 220 millions years ago, a group of reptiles took to the Earth’s vast and open skies. No longer tethered to the ground, the earliest pterosaurs evolved into a multitude of diverse forms, spread around the globe, and ruled the skies until they went extinct along with the dinosaurs about 65 millions years ago, rarely leaving fossils as a record of their existence. What they did leave was a mystery for paleontologists to solve; an enigma so difficult to crack that it took centuries of false starts and missteps before the path to a true understanding of pterosaurs was uncovered. 


Now, an understanding of the fundamental nature of these strange creatures is finally possible.  In the last 15 years, stunning new fossil finds and significant advances in technology have led to a breakthrough in our knowledge of pterosaurs.  New fossils of the earliest species were discovered in Italy, a remarkably well-preserved and complete wing was found in Central Asia, and, most extraordinarily, a pterosaur embryo inside an egg was unearthed in China.  CAT scanning has let researchers glimpse inside pterosaur skulls and construct three-dimensional images of their bodies from crushed bones, and modern techniques for analyzing relationships between species have revealed surprising insights into the evolution of the group.


Drawing on these and other advances, David Unwin, caretaker of Archaeopteryx and curator at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, paints pterosaurs and their world more vividly than has previously been possible.  He eloquently reconstructs their biology and behavior.  Pterosaurs weren’t scaly like dinosaurs, but hairy; most were brightly colored and adorned with remarkable head crests; they were excellent fliers with physiologically sophisticated wings; they walked on all fours; and varied in size from eight inches to forty feet in wingspan.  He shows how they lived their lives, raised their young, and interacted with the different environments of Mesozoic Earth.  Then, building on his thorough examination of their anatomy and lifestyle, and using the powerful technique of cladistic analysis, Unwin unravels the evolutionary history of pterosaurs and establishes their place in the one great tree of life.


Packed with 95 color and 30 black and white illustrations–including 10 full-page original color paintings that are scientific recreations of different pterosaur species–The Pterosaurs From Deep Time takes readers on an wondrous expedition back through the lost world of the Earth’s deep past.



(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:18 -0400)

Here is the first complete portrait of the legendary flying dragons of deep time - the pterosaurs - designed for non-specialists, yet founded on the real science of these bizarre creatures. Presented lucidly and accessibly by one of the world's leading experts, the book is built on a mountain of new fossil discoveries and the latest research. Packed with seventy color and eighty-five black and white illustrations - including eight full-page original color paintings that are scientific recreations of different pterosaur species - it takes readers on an expedition back through the lost world of the Earth's deep past.… (more)

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