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Douzhanopterus: Not the Pterosaur They Think it Is + Overlooked Wing Membranes

Friday, February 17, 2017 11:12
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A new paper by Wang et al. 2017
describes a ‘transitional’ pterosaur (Figs. 1,4) that was purported to link long-tail basal pterosaurs to short-tail derived pterosaurs (Fig. 2).

Unforunately this pterosaur does not do that.
No one single pterosaur can do that (see below, Fig. 3). But the new pterosaur is a new genus with a set of unique traits that nests at the base of the Pterodactylus clade, the Pterodactylidae, not the base of the so-called ‘Pterodactyloidea.’


Figure 1. Douzhanopterus (Wang et al. 2017) at top in situ compared to scale with related pterosaurs, including Jianchangopterus, Ningchengopterus and the Painten pterosaur, all nesting at the base of the Pterodactylidae.

Douzhanopterus zhengi (Wang et al. 2017; STM 19–35A & B; Late Jurassic, Fig. 1) originally nested (Fig. 2) between the Wukongopterids (Wukongopterus, Darwinopterus, Kunpengopterus.) and the Painten pterosaur (Fig. 1) and the rest of the purported clade Pterodactyloidea, beginning with Pterodactylus antiquus. Unfortunately, this is an antiquated matrix based on Wang et al. 2009 modified from Andres et al. 2014 with additional taxa. Unfortunately it includes far too few additional taxa and it produces an illogical cladogram in which clade members recovered by the large pterosaur tree (LPT) become separated from one another.


Figure 2. Basal portion of a cladogram provided by Wang et al. but colorized here to show the division of clades recovered in the LPT. Note that dorygnathids are basal to all derived cyan taxa and Scaphognathids are basal to all derived amber taxa.

As readers of this blogpost know
there was not one origin to the ‘Pterodactyloidea” clade, there were four origins to the pterodactyloid grade: two out of two Dorygnathus specimens and two out of small Scaphognathus descendants (subset of the LPT, Fig. 3). Once again, taxon exclusion is the problem in Wang et al. 2017. Too few taxa were included and many key taxa were ignored.

Should we get excited about the length of the tail
or the retention of an elongate pedal digit 5? No. These are common traits widely known in sister taxa and too often overlooked by pterosaur workers.

I understand the difficulties here.
Wang et al. saw no skull (but see below!) and the rest of the small skeleton is rather plesiomorphic, except for those long shins (tibiae). Even so, plugging in traits to the LPT reveals that Douzhanopterus is indeed a unique genus.


Figure 3. Subset of the LPT focusing on Pterodactylus with Douzhanopterus at its base. Many of these taxa were not included in the Wang et al. 2017 study, but not the proximity of the Painten pterosaur, similar to the Wang et al study.

Here Douzhanopterus nests
in the LPT as a larger sister to Jianchangopterus (Lü and Bo 2011; Middle Jurassic; Fig. 1) at the base of the Pterodactylidae. These are just those few taxa closest to the holotype Pterodactylus and includes the Painten pterosaur, as in the Wang et al. study. Here that pterosaur was likewise demoted from the base of the Pterodactyloidea to the base of the Pterodactylidae.


Figure 4. Douzhanopterus in situ, original drawing and color tracing showing the overlooked soft tissue membranes and skull. Click to enlarge.

Wang et al. overlooked
the skull and soft tissue membranes (Fig. 4) that are readily seen in the published in situ photo image. Click here to enlarge the image. These shapes confirm earlier findings (Peters 2002) in which the wing membranes had a narrow chord + fuselage fillet and were stretched between the elbow and wingtip, not the knee or ankle and wingtip. The uropatagia were also had narrow chords and were separated from one another, not connected to the tail or to each other, contra traditional interpretations.

This is what Digital Graphic Segregation is good for. I have not seen the specimen firsthand yet I have been able to recover subtle data overlooked by firsthand observation. The headline for this specimen should have been about the wing membranes, not the erroneous phylogenetic placement.

Andres B, Clark J and Xu X 2014. The earliest pterodactyloid and the origin of the group. Curr. Biol. 24, 1011–1016.
Lü J and Bo X 2011. A New Rhamphorhynchid Pterosaur (Pterosauria) from the Middle Jurassic Tiaojishan Formation of Western Liaoning, China. Acta Geologica Sinica 85(5): 977–983.
Peters D 2002.  A New Model for the Evolution of the Pterosaur Wing – with a twist.  Historical Biology 15: 277–301.
Wang X.Kellner AWA, Jiang S and  Meng X 2009. An unusual long-tailed pterosaur with elongated neck from western Liaoning of China. An. Acad. Bras. Cienc. 81, 793–812.
Wang et al. 2017. New evidence from China for the nature of the pterosaur evolutionary transition. Nature Scientific Reports 7, 42763; doi: 10.1038/srep42763

wiki/Douzhanopterus (not yet posted)


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