Were early pterosaurs inept terrestrial locomotors?

  • Witton M
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Abstract

Pterodactyloid pterosaurs are widely interpreted as terrestrially competent, erect-limbed quadrupeds, but the terrestrial capabilities of non-pterodactyloids are largely thought to have been poor. This is commonly justified by the absence of a non-pterodactyloid footprint record, suggestions that the expansive uropatagia common to early pterosaurs would restrict hindlimb motion in walking or running, and the presence of sprawling forelimbs in some species. Here, these arguments are re-visited and mostly found problematic. Restriction of limb mobility is not a problem faced by extant animals with extensive fight membranes, including species which routinely utilise terrestrial locomotion. The absence of non-pterodactyloid footprints is not necessarily tied to functional or biomechanical constraints. As with other fully terrestrial clades with poor ichnological records, biases in behaviour, preservation, sampling and interpretation likely contribute to the deficit of early pterosaur ichnites. Suggestions that non-pterodactyloids have slender, mechanically weak limbs are demonstrably countered by the proportionally long and robust limbs of many Triassic and Jurassic species. Novel assessments of pterosaur forelimb anatomies conflict with notions that all non-pterodactyloids were obligated to sprawling forelimb postures. Sprawling forelimbs seem appropriate for species with ventrally-restricted glenoid articulations (seemingly occurring in rhamphorhynchines and campylognathoidids). However, some early pterosaurs, such as \textit{Dimorphodon macronyx} and wukongopterids, have glenoid arthrologies which are not ventrally restricted, and their distal humeri resemble those of pterodactyloids. It seems fully erect forelimb stances were possible in these pterosaurs, and may be probable given proposed correlation between pterodactyloid-like distal humeral morphology and forces incurred through erect forelimb postures. Further indications of terrestrial habits include antungual sesamoids, which occur in the manus and pes anatomy of many early pterosaur species, and only occur elsewhere in terrestrial reptiles, possibly developing through frequent interactions of large claws with firm substrates. It is argued that characteristics possibly associated with terrestriality are deeply nested within Pterosauria and not restricted to Pterodactyloidea as previously thought, and that pterodactyloid-like levels of terrestrial competency may have been possible in at least some early pterosaurs.

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APA

Witton, M. P. (2015). Were early pterosaurs inept terrestrial locomotors? PeerJ, 3, e1018. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1018

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