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Dr. Dave Martill & Pterosaurs

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Blake Smith: OK. So, we’re going to talk about pterosaurs. Our guest today is going to be Dr. David Martill. He did an episode of MonsterQuest talking about an animal called the Ropen, which is ostensibly a glow-in-the-dark pterosaur.

Ben Radford: That sounds very dismissive, Blake.

Blake: You know what? I do feel a little bit dismissive of this because it seems to be out of sync with what science tells us about these animals. I’m sure Dr. Martill will tell us more about that.


[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Welcome to MonsterTalk the skeptical podcast about monsters. I’m Blake Smith. Together with Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer, and Dr. Karen Stollznow, linguist, skeptical investigator, blogger, and now Skepchick, we examine stories about monsters and try to find out what science can tell us about the plausibility of such tales.

Today’s pre-show chat is a little shorter than usual. Dr. Martill’s interview covers a lot of material and I wanted to leave in as much as possible.

On the episode of MonsterQuest dealing with the legendary Ropen, I saw yet another case where creationists were fervently searching for a cryptid in the belief that finding it would help falsify the theory of evolution.

We’ll talk with Dr. Martill about that. But this strange and, I believe, misguided quest by creationists to find these mystery animals keeps coming up again and again.

Hopefully, today’s show will give you a much more detailed understanding of pterosaurs and the legendary Ropen.

This Ropen animal seems a lot like the American thunderbird sightings in that there’s a few little videos. But, in general, there’s not a lot to back it up except stories.

Some of the problems we have with this as skeptics, I think, are that anecdotes are not really evidence, no matter many of them there are.

Ben: Yeah. As you said, there are large animal/bird sightings all over the place. You have the thunderbirds. You’ve got the Ropen. You’ve got the roc, the R-O-C, in some traditions. You have the Native Americans there. There’s no shortage of people that are seeing either mythical or quasi-mythical things in the sky.

In this particular case, I think, with the Ropen, it’s obviously not a bird because it has leathery wings, a tail, and things like that. A featherless tail.

It’s little more interesting than just someone seeing a giant buzzard in Texas or something. As you pointed out, the bioluminescence is hard to reconcile with anything.

Blake: It’s a bit odd. You reminded me of something there that is something we probably need to look into in a future episode. I don’t think we can properly address it today.

That is the relationship between native folklore and cryptozoology. It seems to me that stories that might be legendary or mythic are being repurposed as evidence for cryptids.

For example, stories about giant apes in North America, stories about the thunderbird. And here, the story about the Ropen. That seems to be a folkloric animal in New Guinea, but it’s being treated by cryptozoology aficionados as a real animal. The same thing with lake monsters, as well. In fact, I’m not certain I can think of…

Ben: You got it.

Blake: I don’t think I can think of any of them that don’t have some kind…except for maybe the Chupacabra. We haven’t had a folklore of that before 1995 that I’m aware of.

Karen Stollznow: I would think they’d likely be the source for all of the cryptozoological sightings. That’s how they would begin.

Blake: You’re right. They could become primed by the, “Oh! Did you hear about the wild man of the woods? He’s out there.” And then they’d go find one.

Ben: In the case of the yowie, do you know if there was a pre-existing Aborigine tradition?

Karen: I don’t know of one in particular. There are a lot of Aboriginal dream-time stories and many, many mythological creatures, so I would say likely there would be some sort of similar creature in folklore and oral history.

Blake: Like with drop bears? [laughs]

Karen: Vicious. Bears? Yeah, they’re koalas.

Blake: What?!


Blake: They look like koalas, but with teeth!

Karen: Vampire teeth.

Ben: They’re so cute.

Karen: Yeah, until they land on you and sever your arteries. They’re about nine feet tall, as well.

Blake: Wow! I did not know that.

Karen: So I don’t know how you’d miss them in the trees. Like tree alligators.

Blake: That is also a big problem, yeah. Tree alligators.

Ben: Yeah. We have those here.

Blake: Well, in Florida. So, myth and/or joke. [laughs]

Recording: MonsterTalk!

Blake: Would you like to introduce yourself and talk about your career and where you’re at?

Dr. David Martill: Yeah, sure. I’ll tell you that. My name is Dave Martill. I’m a reader in paleobiology at the University of Portsmouth on the south coast of England. I work in a geology department with a whole bunch of people that mess around with volcanoes and earthquakes.

Also, I’ve got a team of paleobiologists who work on dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and also on the stratigraphy of oil-bearing basins in North Africa.

I’ve got a whole bunch of colleagues with lots and lots of different skills.

One of the specializations that we have here at Portsmouth is on pterosaurs. We’ve been doing a lot of work, particularly on the gigantic pterosaurs that were flying around during the cretaceous period. Between, around about 120 and 165 million years ago.

Blake: Neat. One of my later questions I want to talk about, is the size of those. Don’t let me forget.

David: OK. No, we can talk about that.

One or two other things, we’ve also been working on dinosaurs down here. Also on Plesiosaurs, that’s bring us into contact with a lot of big marine reptiles and talks of things like Loch Ness monsters and what they might be, if they exist at all.

We also have a big field work program. Every year we go out to places like Brazil, to Africa, searching for fossil remains. We’ve got a very active lab here and have had a lot of experience describing new species of dinosaurs.

Blake: Cool.

Ben: : Wow.

Blake: That’s a good lead into that question then. Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs but I assume they share some common ancestry?

David: Yeah, they do in fact. Although they’re not dinosaurs. Most recent analysis seems to show that they’re, if you like, the sister group to dinosaurs.

There’s a kind of a group that fits in there with all the other archosaurs, like the crocodiles and things like that. It’s called the ornithodira, this is dinosaurs and pterosaurs together, so there seems to be this close relationship.

The problem is that, if you were trying to find the ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, the common ancestor, the fossil just isn’t there. It’s hiding somewhere in the Triassic, probably in the middle Triassic, where nobody has found it yet.

Although we think that there’s a relationship between pterosaurs and dinosaurs, it’s not absolutely been proven. There’s still a little bit to play for but most of the evidence seems to indicate that they are close.

Ben: Why are they not dinosaurs?

David: Right, well there’s a whole lots of reasons. It’s really to do with some of the shared characters that dinosaurs have. They’re several things that make dinosaurs, dinosaurs and exclude them from being pterosaurs.

One of the criteria is, if you look at the skeleton, particularly if you look at the backbone in the region of the hips. In dinosaurs, all dinosaurs there’s some of those vertebrae in the sacrum region, are fused together.

But this only happens later on in pterosaurs’ evolution. We think that the fused vertebra in the sacrum of pterosaurs is actually a convergence of dinosaurs and not a shared character. The early pterosaurs don’t seem to have that.

But like I say, there’s a lot to play for and really we still need those intermediary fossils, that we would expect to find somewhere in the middle of the Triassic period. We just haven’t found those fossils yet. The ones that are going to give us those real clues to, what the relationship is between dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

Karen: There seems to be a lot of diversity in the morphology of the pterosaurs. Including vast size differences, amazing crests, varying wing configurations.

Can you talk about some of the common and uncommon features of these animals, that makes them so distinctive?

David: Yeah, good question there.

Pterosaurs really are very, very distinctive animals anyway. They’re completely unlike birds, they’re unlike bats, and unlike any groups of dinosaur of course that don’t fly.

Until fairly recently, pterosaurs were thought of to be rather conservative.

We always recognized from a very early stage that there were broadly two groups of pterosaurs.

One group characterized by having very long tails. Sometimes with a, sort of a little fan or a little blade like structure, diamond shaped, blade like structure, at the end of the tail. And having a skull, which has got some characteristics that it shares in common with some basic groups of reptiles, which we call Diapsids.

Now, these pterosaurs have been known for 200 years or more. Very distinctive, these long tails.

The other group of pterosaurs, the so-called pterodactyloids, have a short tail and they’re some modifications of their skull, that make them very, very different form these long tail forms.

Until very recently, both groups were considered to be, fairly conservative. Although there were some forms with long head-crests, most famous of course being Pteranodon, from the Chalks of Kansas. Some forms were noted to lack teeth in the

In the last 20 or 30 years, there have been more discoveries of pterosaurs, in general of pterosaurs, then were in the 200 years before then. What we’ve realized now, is that this group of short-tailed pterosaurs, so-called pterodactyloids there’s much more diversity than we’ve given to believe.

This diversity is reflected mostly in the elaborate nature of head-crests. We presume that this is related to sexual attraction, just as you get these ornate head-crests and these beautiful tails of some species of birds. We believe that the head-crest of pterosaurs, the great diversity that we see in form of pterosaurs’ head-crests, is related to sexual attraction.

Blake: I’m going to use that as a point to go ahead and ask that question, I sent you an email about the recent findings of downy fibers on some of the more detailed fossils.

David: Yeah.

Blake: Yes. I’m having some trouble saying this. The article implied that, we would have to go back and revisit all of our imagery of pterosaurs.

When I went back and looked at some of the previous findings, I found that there were already many depictions of pterosaurs as being somewhat…

David: Yeah, that article made me laugh. I mean, it was reported in a top journal. Now don’t let me sort of knock it too much.

Blake: [laughs]

David: It didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know.

The Wuyishan pterosaurs deposits of China are fantastic. I mean, they are yielding new pterosaurs with lots and lots of new information. The preservation, the quality of preservation, is absolutely superb, there’s no doubt about it.

But we already knew that pterosaurs were furry. Although the specimens are spectacular, they’re actually not telling us, really, anything that we didn’t already know.

In fact, pterosaurs with fur have been known from German deposits, for getting on for 200 years. Some of the earliest specimens described by people like Meyer and particularly a guy called Goldfuss, had described feather like structures. I’m not calling them feathers, I’m definitely not calling them feathers.

But feather like structures and fur structures on the body and on the neck of pterosaurs.

These were specimens discovered in the 1800s from the Jurassic Solnhofen limestone.

There have been subsequent discoveries. These specimens have never been quite as extensively preserved, as the specimens from Wuyishan. The Wuyishan specimens really are spectacular.

But in fact there’s nothing new in that paper. There’s a little bit of hype going on there, I believe.

Blake: Do you think the fur, I don’t even know that’s the right word for it…fuzz.

David: Fuzz is a good word because it’s not hair in the sense of mammals. It’s not feathers in the sense of birds. It’s something that pterosaurs had and no other reptiles had. So yeah, let’s call it fuzz.

Blake: Let’s call it fuzz. Do you think the fuzz is, well does it tell us anything about whether they were endothermic, exothermic, or what do we think?

David: I think that it probably tells us that they were endotherms and when they had small bodies, that they had a problem about, losing heat.

On the other hand pterosaurs have got these big wing membranes, which had a blood supply. So, they also lost a lot of heat from there.

I think the consensus is that when they were small bodied, they really did have to conserve any heat that they generated and this fur actually does an insulation layer.

But then there’s the likelihood that they’re going to lose an awful lot of heat through those wings. It’s not a cut and dry, as to quite what the function of the fur was.

Blake: Speaking of that, some modern writers try to link modern day giant bird or monster sightings, to pterosaurs. I’m wondering if, on the off chance that there was some extent population of them, other than the fact that they’ve died out 65 million years ago.

That minor point aside, what would be the climate? Where would they…

David: Where would we go to find them?

Blake: Right.

David: OK. Well apart from you saying it’s a minor point, I think it’s a fairly major stumbling block, over trying to discover extent pterosaurs.

Let’s assume that just a few did get through and they made it all the way through the Cenozoic, right up to the present day. Where would we go to look for them?

Well, I think we’d have to go for somewhere that had been largely unexplored, that could exist, without mankind’s having come across them.

Because flying animals, when they’re disturbed, anything that is able to fly has an ability to escape using flight. It takes to the air and in the air, you are visible.

When a bird takes fright, a bird goes up into the air and you see it, you see it flying away.

If pterosaurs were still around, hey if you disturbed them, they would take flight and you would see them flying away.

If they were going to be around, they’re going to be somewhere where nobody’s every been, nobody’s taken a camera, nobody’s every managed to capture an image.

There aren’t terribly many places left on the planet where that’s the case. So you would have to be going to the middle of the middle of the jungles of Brazil. The middle of the jungle of the Congo, or dare I say maybe even some remote place like, the mountains region of Papua New Guinea.

Hey, even these unexplored regions have still had an awful lot of people going there.

When scientists do go to these areas and they come back with newly discovered animals, these new animals always fit into the broad groups of animals that we already know about.

So although people are going off to Borneo and Papua New Guinea and discovering new species. What they’re discovering are new species of animals that we already know about. Like, new species of deer, new species of lizards, new species of turtles.

What they’re not finding is not new species of dinosaurs, new species of pterosaurs. That’s just not on the cards.

Blake: Right. Or you can go back to Conan Doyle’s Lost World in South America.

David: Yeah, let’s all go back there, it’s a whimsical there. There really is a lost world in South America. There’s a place called the Chapada do Araripe in the Northeast of Brazil. It’s one of these plateaus, it’s made of sandstone at the top.

It’s got these beautiful big, steep, deciduous pink cliffs, got a flat top. It’s got jungle on the top and it’s got these flanks, that you go up to the side.

You know, you find pterosaurs there and you find dinosaurs. But it’s like you find them in the cretaceous stratus of the bottom, as fossils.

It looks like an Arthur Conan Doyle type Lost World but all of the dinosaurs there, are all fossil remains, and there’s none of them alive. It’s just sad really.

Blake: [laughs] Did you see a house with a bunch of balloons on top?

David: [laughs] Several, several of them.

Karen: I think we were wanting to learn some of the characteristics of pterosaurs, so could you give us a bit of information about these characteristics? Like where did they nest and how did they move on the ground, what did they eat?

David: Yeah. Actually it’s great, you’re asking some of the questions that we’re still asking and are struggling to find the answers for.

Did you know that they’re only three pterosaurs eggs, ever been found? Only three. Yet we’re finding pterosaurs’ fossils all over the world. We haven’t found a pterosaurs’ nest yet.

We’ve found dinosaur nests. We’ve found thousands of dinosaur nests, often with lots and lots of eggs in and even with babies inside.

So far, just three eggs from pterosaurs. Two from China and one from Argentina. These are accidental discoveries, where an egg somehow has managed to drift out into a lake. But we know that they’re pterosaurs eggs because they actually have baby pterosaurs inside, they’ve got these embryos.

The embryo’s are, in fact fully ossified. They’ve got complete skeletons, with all of the proportions of the flying adults.

Dave Unwin, who’s an expert on pterosaurs, has speculated that pterosaurs could fly very, very soon after hatching.

If that’s the case, they need to have a very, very different growth strategy to birds. Birds put on all of their growth in the nest. They do not take to the air until they’re virtually fully grown.

Certainly, around about 80 percent of total size is achieved before they take to the air.

Although some birds species are precocial, and the chicks will run around and go hunting for their own food after just a few minutes after hatching from the eggs, it looks as though pterosaurs may have been extremely precocial and were often independent almost as soon as they’d hatched.

Now, the proof isn’t there yet. This is just based on three little bits of evidence, three isolated pterosaur eggs. Of course, the ecology of other pterosaurs may be different from that.

Blake: Wow, that’s interesting.

David: I’ll tell you something else that’s also frustrating, and that is that we’ve got hardly any data on what pterosaurs could eat. Mostly our knowledge of what pterosaurs could eat is actually based on looking at the morphology of the jaws, morphology of the teeth when they have them. Trying to extrapolate—linking form and function, if you like—to see if we can guess what they could eat from the morphology of the jaws.

Nearly always, it comes down to some sort of piscivory, eating fish. There probably are much more diverse ecologies than that. There are a few wide mouth forms which have filaments adjacent to their jaws, which might suggest that they were insect eaters, for example. But there are very, very few specimens.

Despite all of the specimens from China and from the Solvayfund in Germany that are complete specimens, there’s hardly any which have got stomach contents. There’s one, not two, but a few little bits of fish remains. The data for it is very small.

To be honest, we don’t know much about the biology and the ecology of pterosaurs.

Blake: Did they use gastroliths?

David: That’s a very good question. If you’d have asked that a year or so ago, I would have said no.

But just recently, somebody has found some gastroliths, very small gravelly material in the stomach of a pterosaur. Suggesting, in fact, that they were using it to possibly grind down hard chitinous skeletons of small shrimps and animals like that.

So yes, there now is at least one pterosaur known that has had gastroliths in the stomach. But hey, you don’t want too many gastroliths if you’re flying. It’s best to keep them to a minimum because of the weight.

Blake: So, they have their beaks or their jaws. They have some teeth. Do those teeth look like they are grinding teeth? Cutting teeth?

David: No. The teeth, the one with the gastroliths, they’re actually extremely fine needle-like teeth from a filter-feeding pterosaur. One that’s been predicted to filter out tiny little shrimps, brine shrimps and things like that. The tooth morphology of pterosaurs is actually quite variable. You see some of the longest and thinnest teeth. I think that the pterosaurs that belong to a group called the Ctenochasmatids. Particularly fine is one with an upturned beak called Pterodaustro. Probably has more teeth than any tetrapod animal. It really has got hundreds of the things. But they’re all as fine as a needle. Very, very fine teeth, indeed.

The diversity of pterosaur teeth is quite high. There were lots of pterosaurs with no teeth, but then there are those with teeth. Some of them have got very variable teeth.

Some of the early pterosaurs have heterodont dentitions. That is to say that the teeth in the front of the jaw are really markedly different from the teeth that are in the back of the jaw.

When you get into the Cretaceous, they’ve often simplified their teeth into rather elongate, fang-like structures that probably formed as sort of an open, fishing net type device.

But there are some with little short triangular teeth which may have worked a little bit like a cookie cutter. There are some which are not particular crushing teeth.

There’s a very strange pterosaur from the Jurassic of Germany which has got some rather stubby little piece in the front of the jaw that just might have been able to crack open the shells of mollusks.

Blake: For those listeners who only have the vaguest idea of what a pterosaur looks like, what would you say that comes closes to a film that people might have seen. Jurassic Park or Land of the Lost?

Where would we go to see a really good, accurate depiction of a pterosaur?

David: I always like to think of that Walking with Dinosaurs series that the BBC put out a few years ago.

Blake: Excellent.

David: They’ve got some nice pterosaurs depicted in that. In fact, several of the episodes show pterosaurs.

But also, Jurassic Park. I forget which one it is. It’s not the first Jurassic Park. Two or…

Blake: Three, three.

David: There’s a wonderful, wonderful big pterosaur in that one to have a look at.

If you want to see something that is reminiscent of pterosaurs, I always think that when you see a frigate bird flying over. The crook of the wing that you see on frigate birds, it has a pterosaur aspect about it. It’s not a pterosaur. It’s not even remotely related. But it always has that primitive aspect that looks sort of pterosaurian.

Blake: What do we think was driving the size increase for pterosaurs at the end of their existence?

David: I don’t know that anything was driving it, but something was letting it happen.

I think one of the most important things is that the skeleton is made of bone. Bone is a wonderfully versatile, incredibly plastic material. Bone can be engineered to be extremely light and extremely strong at the same time. It really was a wonderful evolutionary invention. It allowed animals to become incredibly large. It equally allowed animals to become incredibly small. It allowed animals to change their size and shape quite dramatically during their life, whilst at the same time always being functional.

You never had to take a day out and grow a bone. You always could carry on doing whatever you wanted to while your bone was changing its size and shape in response to your growth strategy.

One thing that’s great fun about pterosaurs is that they really did achieve gigantic proportions. We have known about this for quite a long time.

Even though, spectacularly, Quetzalcoatlus hit the news in the 1970s, when its remains were found down in Texas, and there was some speculation that it might have achieved wingspans 14, 15 meters or even larger in diameter. The consensus today is that Quetzalcoatlus was probably around about nine meter wingspan. Some related forms, I think, with Hatzegopteryx might have been just marginally larger.

Nevertheless, wingspans of 9 and 10 meters makes them the largest-ever flying animals. Bigger than any fossil bird or indeed any extant bird that we know of. They really were achieving gigantic proportions.

We’ve actually known about these fossils even in the 1800s. There was a great British comparative anatomist—probably as good if not better than the French Baron von Cuvier—who was describing fragments of pterosaurs in the 1800s.

Although they were very tantalizing, these fragments, Richard Owen was able to calculate wingspans of certainly six meters even before Pteranodon had been discovered in North America in the 1870s.

David: There have been some fossil trackways found. They seem to give us a little bit of information about how these animals might have moved on the ground. I saw descriptions of that.

What is the current understanding of how their ground movement worked?

Blake: Pterosaurs appear to have been quadripedal. When they were on the ground, they weren’t walking bipedally. Pterosaurs have nearly always been depicted as quadripedal animals. That changed with the dinosaur renaissance.

When people were getting very excited about dinosaurs being endothermic or warm blooded—an idea brought about by Bob Bakker in the 1970s—there was also, if you like, a pterosaur renaissance, although mostly the pterosaur renaissance followed a little bit later than the dinosaur renaissance.

Kevin Padian over in California was postulating that pterosaurs were bipedal animals. I’m afraid to say that the footprint evidence really doesn’t bear this out.

One thing that’s really nice about pterosaur footprints is that you can be very confident when you’re dealing with pterosaur footprints.

With dinosaur footprints, you can determine that they’re dinosaur, but it’s very difficult to tell me which dinosaur made them.

With pterosaur footprints, there isn’t any ambiguity. Pterosaurs have got a hand which is very distinctive, completely different from the morphology of the foot. With the pterosaur foot, you’ve got four long toes sticking forward, and then you’ve got a fifth toe, a little toe which is sticking out at the side. That leaves a very characteristic footprint.

If you were to just find a footprint, you might be, you might be a little concerned that you haven’t fully identified the animal.

What you find with pterosaur tracks is you find a very distinctive three fingered handprint. These fingers are folded sideways.

This is the configuration that occurs when the main flight wing finger is folded back, and the other three fingers are opened up, and displayed on their sides.

The handprint of a pterosaur is very, very different from the footprint of a pterosaur. Because the handprint and the footprint are very distinctive of pterosaurs, when you find a track where you find these handprints and footprints in unison, that leaves you no doubt that these track ways are made by pterosaur.

What we find is quadruped track ways. We find pterosaurs were walking on their legs or on their feet, and on their hands.

Karen: How widely distributed were the pterosaurs?

David: Pterosaurs now have been found all over the world. I think now there’s even a record from Antarctica.

They certainly appear very, very abundant in the Cretaceous. All over the world. They’re found in Australia. They’re found in South America, especially, but also China, Europe, and North America.

The pterosaurs seem to get around the world pretty quickly. The first pterosaurs that we find are of late Triassic age.

Initially, it was felt that they were restricted to Europe. We now know that that’s not the case.

We’ve got Triassic pterosaurs from Greenland, and from North America, as well.

Pterosaurs appear suddenly in the fossil record, and they suddenly get to be pretty global.

On the other hand, they’re flying animals, so they aren’t terribly many barriers in the way. Those oceans between Europe and North America weren’t especially wide in the Triassic period.

It really didn’t take pterosaurs very long before they populated the globe.

Blake: When did pterosaurs disappear from the fossil records?

David: The last pterosaur in the fossil record is right at the very end of the Cretaceous. Rocks of about 65 million years ago in North America.

If you go down to Big Bend, in Big Bend you actually have the boundary that marks the end of the Mesozoic era and the start of the Cenozoic.

There’s a formation down there called the Javelina Formation. The very last, and the very biggest pterosaurs, are found in that formation down in Big Bend, Texas.

Blake: Is that concurrent with the KT boundary?

David: Yeah, absolutely. They’re just under the KT boundary.

There’s also some from Europe, as well, in the very last part of the Cretaceous. The very last part of the Cretaceous is called the Maastrichtian, after Maastricht, the town in the Netherlands.

Wherever you go, you seem to find this group of very large pterosaurs. They go under the name of Azhdarchids.

They’re usually characterized by being very large, and having very, very elongated neck vertebrae.

You can find the remains have turned up in Jordan. At the end of Maastrichtian, they’re found in Romania.

There are a few bits and pieces have turned up in Spain and elsewhere. By far, the best known specimens are from Texas.

Blake: At that time of the world, how widely separated where the continents if these things were global?

David: By the time you get into the end of the Cretaceous, the Atlantic Ocean has become really quite wide and is a significant ocean.

But during the earlier part of the Mesozoic, the Atlantic didn’t exist as an ocean. It existed as some rather narrow seaways comparable to the Red Sea today.

It was an ocean undergoing birth. So there was no barrier to migration in the Jurassic, really.

There were certainly land bridges that allowed dinosaurs to get between the continents of North American, Asia and Europe right up into the early part of the Cretaceous.

But by the time you get into the Cretaceous, that mid-ocean ridge in the Atlantic is really spewing out magma and the ocean is increasing at a heck of a rate.

By the time you get to the end of the Cretaceous, the Atlantic has become a significant ocean. By then it’s become a barrier.

Also, sea levels were rising. So even if your ocean wasn’t that wide, sea levels in the middle part of the Cretaceous, the part of the Cretaceous that we call the Cenomanian and the Turonian, estimated to be about 300 meters higher than present-day sea levels.

If you’re worried about [laughs] global warming and the sea level rise now, you’ve got nothing on the Cretaceous, I can tell you.


Blake: I guess that’s comforting.

David: Yeah, well, in North America you had a massive seaway which split your continent in two.

You wouldn’t have been able to communicate with those in California during the Cretaceous. That was a massive seaway there, just simply because sea levels were high.

Blake: Do you think, if we talk about monsters for a minute, the modern sightings of what people think are pterosaurs.

All of the descriptions I’ve heard, except for this weird bio-luminescent thing in New Guinea, have been describing the leathery kind of pterosaurs you would have seen in text books.

Since discoveries have shown us that pterosaurs were likely at least fuzzy, and possibly colorful.

That seems to discount the likelihood that whatever they’re seeing would be a pterosaur, right?

Blake: I think that the people, who knows that they’re seeing. What they’re not seeing are pterosaurs.

It’s interesting to see, that when people do the descriptions of the animals that they supposedly have seen, they end up drawing something which is from a text book.

I saw one beautiful example, where this guy had drawn the pterosaur that he had seen.

He said, “It looks exactly like the animal in the text book. I’ve seen this animal.” In fact, the animal in the text book is completely erroneous from our ideas of what a pterosaur might have looked like.

You think to yourself, yeah, right. You really were conditioned by what you saw in the book there. You start to doubt the person’s integrity. You tend to think, now, maybe you’re not telling all the story there.

If you look at reconstructions of dinosaurs and pterosaurs over the years, what’s happened is our knowledge of these animals is getting better, and better, and better.

When you see a reconstruction from the early periods, these animals don’t look anything like what we now believe them to be like.

When people are absolutely adamant that they’ve seen this animals, and they look like it did in the text book, then I tend not to believe them.

Karen: David, could you tell us about your experience of going to Papua, New Guinea, with MonsterQuest? Did you watch the final product?

David: [laughs] I did watch the final product. I thought the producer did an excellent job of putting the program together.

You can appreciate that trying to make a program, trying to hunt for an animal that in fact in my opinion doesn’t exist, is very difficult to do.

Although they investigated lots and lots of the phenomena that had been reported, because I suspect that a lot of people aren’t really telling the truth about these phenomenon what they saw, then putting a program together like that is going to be very, very difficult.

Let me tell you now, it was a wonderful experience going to Papua New Guinea. I can assure you that I really would have loved it if there was a pterosaur.

It would be so fantastic if just one colony of pterosaurs had survived somewhere.

Then I’d be able to assess just how wrong we are as paleontologists.

The great thing about my job is that the final proof that I’m wrong just doesn’t exist.

The pterosaur is not alive, so I can say what I like about pterosaurs and you can look at the fossil evidence to see if the story I’m telling is a least partly believable.

The final proof of course would be if there was such a pterosaur. The coelacanth is known to exist. It would be so so nice if a pterosaur was to exist, too.

The ocean is a great place to hide fossil fish, but the surface of the Earth is our domain and we have been everywhere.

We haven’t found a pterosaur, and we haven’t found a fossil pterosaur in rocks younger than Cretaceous age. The pterosaur doesn’t exist.

I knew that we were onto a hiding for nothing, but I really was absolutely delighted to be asked to go to Papua New Guinea. It’s a place that I’ve always wanted to go to. So I was more than happy to go and help.

I told the producer it was my considered opinion that they were not going to find a pterosaur, but he wanted to have a pterosaur expert on the program. I was happy to be that pterosaur expert.

Blake: If you listen to some of the monster enthusiasts and a lot of the cryptozoologist folks, they claim that scientists such as yourself actually don’t want to find these creatures because…

David: I do, I do.

Blake: The story is that if you actually found these that it would shake your world view and it would undermine your science.

David: Why would it undermine my science?

Blake: The story goes that you are so vested in the scientific point of view…

Ben: Not you in particular.

Blake: Not you in particular, but scientists in general.

That actually when scientists participate in these programs that they’ll do it to help out a bit, but that really, again I’ve heard some people claim this, that really we don’t want to find put what’s there.

We don’t want to admit that there’s good evidence for Bigfoot. We don’t want to admit…

David: We have a saying in England that’s too rude to say on air.

Ben: No, go ahead.

David: I think that view is bollocks. Most scientists that I know would be absolutely delighted if they found a trilobite, a graptolite, a pterosaur or a T. Rex—any of these animals that’s extinct.

What we know about them from the fossil remains is that they’re fascinating. We actually would love to have, if you like, the proof of how fascinating they are because we would get the whole biology of these animals.

It would be great to see just how wrong we had been. No. I don’t think that discovering a pterosaur or a T. Rex would undermine any of our scientific philosophies.

What would undermine them is the other way round. I forget. I think it was Meyer who said what would shake his belief in evolution. He said, “a bunny rabbit in the Ordovician.”

The other way round is much more problematic than if we find animals that have survived.

There are countless examples of what we might call living fossils. There are trees that are known by only one genus that were incredibly abundant and diverse in the Mesozoic. There are groups of fishes that were much, much more widespread and important in the Jurassic and in the Cretaceous. In North America you’ve got garpike. We can push the fossil record of garpike right back into the early part of the Cretaceous.

In Brazil there is a fossil garpike which looks really quite similar to a modern day garpike. It’s about 105 million years old.

Now, that garpike belongs to a group of fishes which are typified by very, very thick, enamel coated scales. They were the dominant fish group all during the Mesozoic, certainly during the Triassic and the Jurassic.

They declined in importance during the Cretaceous, and the vast majority of them were extinct before the end of the Cretaceous. But the garpike got through. In the oceans, the coelacanth got through. It would be really cool if a pterosaur got through. Even if a pterosaur did get through, it wouldn’t alter a jot our perceptions about evolution, the age of the earth, or any of our scientific philosophies which paleontologists have developed.

Blake: I think that actually is an excellent lead-in. We were actually going to ask you about that particular idea that somehow finding a living dinosaur would falsify evolution.

It seems like in your trip to PNG, you did have a lot of work with creationists, based on the outcome of the episode.

Would you like to comment on the young earth creationists’ quest to disprove evolution?

David: I found it very bizarre. I found it very bizarre. The thing is that we have different approaches. Creationists have a different philosophy. They believe in something. Whereas scientists, if they’re being proper scientists, they should have a hypothesis and they should try and test that hypothesis. Now, in paleontology, it can be difficult to test hypotheses but it isn’t impossible. There are methodologies by which we can test ideas. I find that the creationists come from a completely different point of view. They have something that is written in a holy book. They try explain everything in terms of that holy book. They take it quite literally.

I got into a little bit of a discussion about the fact that Noah’s ark had dinosaurs on it, which I found odd. The argument was that the dinosaurs weren’t mentioned in the Bible because we didn’t invent the word until…Well, Owen invented it probably in 1840 but it didn’t get published until 1842. So the word “dinosaur” didn’t actually exist in our vocabulary until 1842. Therefore, it couldn’t exist in the Bible. Therefore, because the word didn’t exist, there must therefore by default have been dinosaurs on Noah’s ark. Spurious logic, I fear, but there you go.

I handed you very difficult because we’re looking at things from a different point of view. We just agreed to differ, and we got on really rather famously.

Blake: Did you notice the part in the video where they had the video from 2006 and the physicist said that he thought it must be a Ropen?

David: Yes.

Blake: I looked them up…

David: And his evidence was?

Blake: Right, exactly. His evidence was…

David: His evidence was nonexistent. He had an image of some lights which he couldn’t say what they were and what they weren’t.

Somebody says, we’ve got these things called Ropens there. By default, it must be a Ropen. I think not. I think not.

Blake: It’s very strange, yeah. Did you see anything? Did you hear any of the stories there about this bioluminescent flying animal?

David: Yeah. We interviewed some guys. These guys were describing these lights that came out of the side of the mountain and then they went off in this direction and disappeared.

In the morning, some lights came back and went back into the mountain. They said it couldn’t be an airplane because they knew that airplanes didn’t fly at night. There’s a little bit of misguided… [laughs] Misguided, there.

The point is, it seemed to correlate quite nicely with one of the flights which left Sydney for Tokyo, and then the corresponding flights in the morning coming back.

I think there were a few phenomena that had been ignored there.

Blake: They left that bit out of the episode, too—anybody saying that airplanes don’t fly at night. That’s very similar to UFO phenomena. The Phoenix lights, which skeptics… We believe it was flares falling behind a mountain.

It’s like craft disappearing over a mountain range, but we think it was flares falling behind the mountain range. It creates the same illusion.

David: Yeah. That’s all it is, an illusion. Until you actually get that Ropen in a net, I think they’re best as mysterious lights in the sky.

There’s loads and loads of mysterious lights in the sky. There’s all sorts of ways of generating mysterious lights.

But I know of hardly any animal that farts balls of glowing gas out of its anus as it flies along. I don’t know of any.

Blake: They are few and far between, I’ll say.

David: They are rare. There’s a few insects which can eject quite hot fluid. The bombardier beetle, for example.

There’s quite a few organisms with bioluminescence, but bright sparks shooting out your ass is just not common.

Blake: I love it!

David: It’s not common.


Blake: We just need to look harder. That’s the problem.

David: We’re not looking hard enough, are we? No. We must try harder.

Blake: I think there’s a squid or an octopus that ejects bioluminescent fluid instead of ink, but I don’t think that they can fly.

David: Bioluminescence is much, much more common in the marine realm than it is amongst terrestrial.

In fact, I don’t think there’s a single vertebrate animal on land that has bioluminescence. There was a claim for a frog, I believe, but that claim has not been substantiated.

You do find bioluminescence in a whole lot of fishes, especially in the deep ocean. In the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean, bioluminescence is used as a lure and for signaling devices. Otherwise, it’s phenomenally rare. It occurs in some invertebrates. There’s plenty of glowworms and fireflies and things. It’s extremely rare outside of the deep marine realm for vertebrates.

Ben: I can’t imagine there would be a good evolutionary reason for bioluminescence, particularly something in the air.

David: It would be a good reason for being extinct, wouldn’t it? It would be a great reason to become extinct. It’s a bit of a giveaway, isn’t it? It gives your presence away a bit.

Ben: “There’s that glowing thing. I’m hungry.”

Blake: Even if it’s the predator, it would be giving it away to the prey. It’s very odd, very odd.

David: I think it’s make-believe, myself. Some people claim that they’ve seen some sort of strange animal and they decide that that’s going to be pterosaur.

Somebody else decides they’ve seen some bright lights in the sky. All of a sudden, they’re adding the two and two together and they say that that the bright lights are the pterosaur. Well, I think not. Let’s have little bit more substantive data before we start telling these big fairy stories.

Blake: We get the thunderbird stories here in the US. At least they’re daylight sightings.

David: We do know that in more recent times there have been some pretty big birds. Argentavis was a pretty big bird.

We do know that there have been, just a few million years ago, some really rather large birds. I could probably cope more with finding a thunderbird than I could with finding a pterosaur. Although, personally, I know what birds look like. I really much, much prefer to find a pterosaur than a thunderbird.

Blake: Sure. [laughs] Many people are not really familiar with seeing buzzards and condors up close, so when they see one really close, it seems exceptionally large compared to what they would expect.

We get a lot a buzzards down here in Georgia. Up close, our turkey vultures, for example.

David: They’re impressive animals, aren’t they?

Blake: Yeah, they really are. And ugly.


David: I’m wondering—ugly as hell—if you’ve ever seen an Andean condor. I’ve stood in the Andes and watched an Andean condor. They start off a long, long way in the distance. They just sort of drift towards you. They just seem to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Eventually, when they’re overhead, they’re absolutely enormous. And then they drift off again in the other direction. By the time they’re a couple of kilometers away, they’ve disappeared. They do that whole distance and they don’t even flap their wings. It’s absolutely magnificent. They are enormous.

Blake: It’s so hard to tell scale in the air.

David: Absolutely. You’ve got to have the thing down by your side, sitting next to a meter scale bar.

Blake: Yeah, that would be the best way. [laughs] Karen, do you have any more questions?

Karen: No.

Blake: I’m overwhelmed with knowledge now.

Ben: This has been very informative. Thank you.

David: OK. Well, look, you guys. In about five minutes, I’ve got to leave because we’ve got a boat trip around the harbor with our first-year students. I’ve got a new crop of first-years at University of Portsmouth. They’re just starting their paleobiology degree pathway. Hopefully, I’m training the scientists that in the future are going to go out there. One of them may be the person who’s going to discover that Ropen.

Blake: I hope so. [laughs]

David: Nice to chat to you guys.

Blake: Thanks a lot.

Ben: Thanks.

David: I’m glad we finally managed to find a slot where we could all meet up and chat.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Announcer: Thanks for listening to another episode of Monster Talk. I’m Blake Smith and together with Ben Radford and Karen Stollznow we’ve been interviewing Dr. Dave Martill about pterosaurs and the legendary Ropen of New Guinea.

Music for today’s episode was provided by Peach Stealing Monkeys.

We’ve got some interesting news coming up at the end of October, some big changes for our show and we also have some really good guests lined up to discuss Darwin, werewolves and genetics.


The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.

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