February 6th

1829 – Buckland Presents A New Discovery in London

On this day in dinosaurs, we’re not talking about dinosaurs. It’s time to shed some light on the other denizens of the Mesozoic. And on February 6th, 1829, a paper on one of the most charismatic of the flying reptiles–or pterosaurs–was presented to the Geological Society of London.

Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs. They are classified by their elongated fourth finger which supports a wing membrane that they use to fly. The first of these flyers to be discovered was named pterodactyl, meaning “wing finger.” And subsequent discoveries were given separate species names associated with pterodactyl (though some of these would later be given their own genus names as well). Eventually, the pterosaurs were given their own family when it became clear there were many different kinds.

Today’s featured critter is one of those pterosaurs. The Reverend William Buckland (who famously described Megalosaurus) named this new flying reptile Pterodactylus macronyx for the elongated claws the creature sported on its hands.

Illustration of D. macronyx specimen NHMUK PV R 41212 / Wikipedia
Illustration of D. macronyx specimen NHMUK PV R 41212 / Wikipedia

Buckland says the animal in question was around the size of a raven. He deduced the pterosaur insectivorous and even suggested it could be nocturnal like a bat (it doesn’t seem to be nocturnal, and later evidence suggests its diet could have been more varied, with small vertebrates and carrion as options alongside insects). Placing it in the environment of the Jurassic Coast where monstrous marine reptiles had already been found, Buckland paints a grim picture: “With flocks of such creatures flying in the air, and shoals of no less monstrous Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri swarming in the ocean, and gigantic crocodiles and tortoises crawling on the shores of the primeval lakes and rivers–air, sea, and land must have been strangely tenanted in these early periods of our infant world.”

In describing the condition of the specimen, Buckland actually quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The Fiend

O’er bog, or steep, through straight, rough, dense, or rare,

With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way,

and swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies.

In the following years, Sir Richard Owen–the man who invented the classification for Dinosauria–reclassified Buckland’s Pterodactylus macronyx as a new genus. Owen named it Dimorphodon macronyx. Additional discoveries have given us a better picture of Dimorphodon and it is one of the most charismatic of the flying reptiles.

Dmitry Bogdanov / Wikipedia
Dmitry Bogdanov / Wikipedia

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