The equivocal epipophyses of Cf. Quetzalcoatlus

February 5, 2015

It’s well known that there is good fossil material of the giant azhdarchid pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus out there, but that for various complicated reasons it’s yet to be published. But as part of our ongoing quest for pterosaur epipophyses, I have obtained these photos of a pretty well preserved single cervical, probably C3, which is either Quetzalcoatlus or something pretty darned close.

TMP 1992.83.7, Quetzalcoatlus sp., cervical 3. Top, dorsal view; bottom, ventral view. Scale bar = 10 cm.

TMP 1992.83.7, Cf. Quetzalcoatlus, cervical 3. Top, dorsal view; bottom, ventral view. Anterior is to the left. Scale bar = 10 cm. Click through for high resolution.

My thanks go, in chronological order, to Rob Knell of QMC for taking the photos; to Don Brinkman for permission to share them publicly; and to Mike Habib (the USC one, not the Elsevier one) for passing them on to me. (The composition is my own work, which anyone is free to reuse so far as I’m concerned.)

Here’s what Mike Habib says about the specimen:

… well preserved TMP azhdarchid cervical vertebra. It is likely a CIII vert, and appears to be from an animal very similar to the small morph of Quetzalcoatlus in overall morphology. The associated humerus is just about an exact match. This cervical, however, does not quite match the proportions of any of the Q. sp. cervical verts, though that’s not a surprise given that the animals come from different horizons. There is a much larger, but poorly preserved cervical vert at the TMP as well (a Q. northropi sized animal, give or take).

Here are Mike’s measurements:

  • maximum length: 142.2 mm
  • minimum mediolateral breadth: 39.3 mm
  • minimum dorsoventral breadth: 27.4 mm
  • midshaft mediolateral breadth 40.0 mm
  • midshaft dorsoventral breadth 27.0 mm
  • mediolateral breadth across prezygapophyses: 65.6 mm
  • mediolateral breadth across postzygapophyses: 68.5 mm
  • dorsoventral breadth at postzygapophyses: 35.8 mm

(I mean those are the measurements that Mike provided for the vertebra, not the measurements of Mike himself. He’s much bigger than that.)

So does this specimen have epipophyses? Frustratingly, there don’t seem to be lateral or posterior-view photos, so it’s very hard to tell from these dorsal and ventral ones. Happily, the same specimen was illustrated and briefly described by Godfrey and Currie (2005:294-299), along with several other less well-preserved cervicals — so we do have drawings of these other views:

Godfrey and Currie (2005:figure 16.1). Azhdarchid cervical vertebra (TMP 92.83.7) in (A) dorsal, (B) left lateral, (C) ventral, (D) anterior, (E) posterior, and (F) posterodorsal views. Abbreviations: hyp, hypapophysis; nc, neural canal; pn, pneumatopore; prz, prezygapophysis.

Godfrey and Currie (2005:figure 16.1). Azhdarchid cervical vertebra (TMP 92.83.7) in (A) dorsal, (B) left lateral, (C) ventral, (D) anterior, (E) posterior, and (F) posterodorsal views. Abbreviations: hyp, hypapophysis; nc, neural canal; pn, pneumatopore; prz, prezygapophysis.

(The specimen number given here is slightly different from that given for the photos, but matches the label in the ventral-view photo. I assume that the leading “93” part of the specimen number is a year, and that it’s sometimes but not always given in four digits.)

The text of the description does not mention epipophyses, and skips very lightly over the whole postzygapophyseal area. But figures 16.1B (lateral) and 16.1E (posterior) both seem to show distinct bulbous eminences well above the postzygapophyseal facets. I think these have to be epipophyses. So Mark Witton’s caution not to write off azhdarchid epipophyses on the strength of their apparent absence in Phosphatodraco proves well-founded.

What is the moral here?

The more we look for epipophyses, the more we find them.

Which will be strangely familiar to anyone who remembers our experience with caudal pneumaticity in sauropods, which was: the more we looked for it, the more we found it.

If we have an SV-POW! motto (other than “sauropods are awesome”, of course), it’s “Measure your damned dinosaur!“. But if we had a third motto, it would be like unto it: look at your damned dinosaur. Or pterosaur, as the case may be. The odds are, you’ll see things you weren’t expecting.

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7 Responses to “The equivocal epipophyses of Cf. Quetzalcoatlus


  1. If epipophyses are found in many groups in Ornithodira, i wonder if any crocodylomorphs have them.

  2. Zach Miller Says:

    Frustrating to think there’s beautiful Quetzalcoatlus material in a Texas museum that’s just collecting dust, and permission is not being given to outside researchers to describe it. At least, that’s the impression I got when Darren discussed “Q. sp.” at Tet Zoo awhile back.

  3. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    “I assume that the leading “93” part of the specimen number is a year, and that it’s sometimes but not always given in four digits”

    Yup, that’s how RTMP specimen numbers work. It was basically always listed as two digits until they got to 2000, so now if you want to Google search a specimen, you have to try two versions. Just like how BMNH became NHM and IGM became MGI or MPC-D. I wonder if museums realize how their decision to change their abbreviations makes it that much more tedious to locate information.

    “i wonder if any crocodylomorphs have them”

    Yes, Nesbitt et al. (2011) report Hesperosuchus has them, for instance.

    “Frustrating to think there’s beautiful Quetzalcoatlus material in a Texas museum that’s just collecting dust, and permission is not being given to outside researchers to describe it.”

    Completely agree. That was at the behest of Wann Langston, right? As he died in 2013, is there any new hope of the Quetzalcoatlus material being available?


  4. […] does this mean? Only the same thing we said last time: The more we look for epipophyses, the more we find them. Amazing how often that turns out to be […]

  5. Andrew Stuck Says:

    Why the heck is this supposedly pristine Quetzalcoatlus sp. material apparently invisible to science? I keep hearing whispered rumors of it all over the internet, but can never find the complete story. Does anybody actually know the full account of what’s going on with this thing?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Andrew,

    The best information we have — and it’s not good news — is this comment on a Tet Zoo article by noted pterosaur expert Chris Bennet:

    Who will describe Quetzalcoatlus? Darren states that it is unsure what will happen, but when Wann Langston died it seemed pretty clear what would happen. Wann contacted me in 2006 and asked me to coauthor the full description of the referred specimens, and I happily agreed. I went down to Austin to start work but little got done because Wann’s priority was with crocodilians rather than pterosaurs and I was not about to tell a man in his 80′s what to do. Shortly before he died, Wann contacted me and asked me to complete the monographic description of the referred specimens and submit it for publication within one year. Again I agreed. Wann died in April and I planned to go to Austin to work on the materials in June, but the curator, Tim Rowe, would not let me. Although Wann had assured me that he had laid out all the pertinent papers and specimens in his office so it would be easy for me to pick up where he left off, Rowe claimed that it would take them a long time to sort through the office contents. I prefer to believe Wann and have no confidence that Rowe will ever let me work on the monograph. So now the statement that we do not know what will happen is true. Some may want to criticize Langston for sitting on the material for so long and not publishing, but if his final wishes for the material were respected, a thorough monograph would have been submitted for publication by the Summer of 2014. Langston is no longer responsible for any delays, and from now on full responsibility for whatever does or does not happen with Quetzalcoatlus is on Tim Rowe.

    So it doesn’t look good. As far as I know, Tim Rowe has not responded to this comment (unless anyone can tell me different?) so I don’t know if there’s another side to the story. (And just to underline my neutrality on this score, I have never met or ever corresponded with either Bennett or Rowe.)


  7. […] given pterosaurs all the glory in two earlier posts, it’s time to move yet further away from the sauropods we know and love, and look at […]


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