Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Creature Feature: Nyctosaurids.

Pterosaurs are my favorite prehistoric creatures ever, in part because they are so goshdarn strange. They could fly, a feature that has only evolved in vertebrates three separate times. They had fur. Many of them had crazy head. (The generic pterosaur with a crest, a long neck, and a long tail did not exist, by the way.) Pterosaurs were also the origin of wyverns, the basis for the ever-so-popular British dragon.

The pterosaur genus Nyctosaurus probably takes the cake for weirdness, even for pterosaurs.  They were relatively large pterosaurs with two-meter wingspans. All Nyctosaur specimens come from exactly one deposit (the Niobrara Formation) in Kansas, U.S.A. It lived in the Cretaceous like its relative Pteranodon, but it did not live nearly as long.

First off, what's in a name? "Nyctosaur" means "night lizard" or "bat lizard." By default, it and Stygimoloch should be mascots for a death metal band, or at least a brand of alcohol. Why Fossil Fighters made this particular pterosaur bright green instead of giving it a darker palette and a black wyvern super form is beyond me. That's right, I know you know Greek. Don't be scared to flaunt it!

 Part of the reason they got their goth-friendly name was because, unlike all other pterosaurs, Nyctosaurus had only one digit on each wing. This made its wing structure more like a bat's than like the wings of other pterosaurs. Most pterosaurs had four digits total on each wing: three claws and a long, thick wing digit. Nyctosaurus was all wing and no hand. We are not even sure how it landed.

Pterosaurs in general have some pretty weird headgear, but Nyctosaurus puts them all to shame with its antler. Although not present in all nyctosaurid specimens, many skulls sport a crest about a foot high with a horizontal prong that's almost as long. The crest is roughly three times as big as the pterosaur's actual head. If this projection had a flap of skin between the two, it may have been used like a sail to steer the creature. There is also the possibility that, sail or no, it was used in courtship...which may explain why the nyctosaurids did not live very long.

This just LOOKS awkward.

Alas, Nyctosaurus lived for maybe a million years, and only in one location. Compared to other paleo-beasts, its life was short and sweet. Is anybody reading this really surprised? It's trippy to know that something like this existed, but there are a few aspects of Nyctosaurus that are impractical, to say the least. Darwinism: It works.


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  2. I'm so fascinated with the Nyctosaurus. The idea that it might have had a giant sail on its head is so appealing to me. I studied sailing and I can see how a creature that lived by the water might benefit from having a sail-like feature. For one, a sail works as an airfoil - generating lift that can help the creature conserve energy while maintaining altitude... Also, since many pterosaurus were notorious for keeping their head tilted down while flying it makes sense to have some kind of crest that would balance the aerodynamics of the creature... Perhaps Nyctosaurus was a stealth creature (much like today's sailfish)...Furthermore, as sailboats undergone their own evolution, the current shape (which is very similar to Nyctosaurus') is what gives the boat the most range of motion when sailing windward. In other words, with a sail-like crest the creature could possibly fly against the wind, using it to accelerate in fact. I'm looking forward to science revealing the truth.

    1. See Nyctosaurus in real flight on www.island-masters.de : http://archiv.island-masters.de/film-archiv/Flight%20Scenes%20181%20182%20(extended).mp4