Meet the Original Birds in a Field Guide to Winged Dinosaurs
by Brandon Keim
Has any paleontological discovery of the 21st century been so transformative as the fact that dinosaurs were feathered?
Sure, biologists still have academically foundational arguments over the proper positions of various protoplasmic goos at the tree of life’s trunk, but what shakes the trunk doesn’t always sway the branches. Not like dinosaurs — the charismatic megafauna of our collective childhood imaginations, now with feathers.
The dinosaur history books have literally been redrawn, and among the artists is Matthew Martyniuk, author and illustrator of the Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and Other Winged Dinosaurs. Inside, using the field guide format that’s introduced so many people to nature, he introduces readers to dozens of dinosaurs that lived in the strange evolutionary junction between dino and bird.
“I’ve always been interested in bird evolution. It seemed there were so many books illustrating prehistoric animals, but none focusing on bird origins,” said Martyniuk. “A lot of their characteristics go pretty deep into what were traditionally considered dinosaurs, and are really making us rethink how they would have looked in real life.”
On the following pages, Martyniuk takes Wired on a tour of his dino-bird world…
The element of surprise gives this rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis) in Cameroon an edge over prey. Quick-kill venom finishes the job. Vipers provide valuable toxins, including those used in drugs for hypertension and heart disease and to control bleeding during surgery.
The ploughshare tortoise is not only the rarest tortoise in the world, it is arguably the most beautiful of them all.
Turtle Conservancy Team members have been involved with the ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora) for decades, and in 2008 we began a major new effort with this most critically endangered tortoise. Funds are financing in situ work, enhancing protection of the ploughshare tortoise in Baly Bay National Park, where poaching is devastating the wild population.
With these funds we have now hired additional park rangers and guards, and purchased a boat - decreasing the time to mobilize and increasing law enforcement within the park. Although completely protected by law, the political instability in Madagascar has made it all too easy for poachers to remove a significant portion of the remaining wild population, estimated at 200-600 tortoises…
The mini-pterosaur, Nemicolopterus crypticus, had a wingspan of only 10 inches (25 cm)—about the size of a modern sparrow. The fossil creature, which lived in gingko forest canopies about 120 million years ago, was unearthed in ancient lake beds in eastern China back in 2008…
Nothing has ever flown through the air as magnificently as a giant pterosaur. Not that I’ve seen one to say for absolutely certain. The last of the great leathery-winged flyers died out with the non-avian dinosaurs, in the mass extinction that struck the planet 66 million years ago. Still, I can’t imagine anything more spectacular than one of these gangly, fuzzy reptiles – the largest being as tall as a giraffe with a wingspan over thirty three feet across – pole-vaulting into the air and rising into the Cretaceous sky.
And in his new book Pterosaurs, paleontologist and artist Mark Witton pays tribute to these charismatic creatures by reconstructing and restoring them in exacting detail.
Pterosaurs suffer from a bit of an image problem. For one thing, many people confuse these awkward-looking creatures with dinosaurs. So far as we know now, as Witton covers in an early chapter, the variety of pterosaur forms – from tiny toothed flappers to beaked giants that were the largest animals ever to fly – composes the sister group to the Dinosauria. That is, pterosaurs were the closest cousins of the dinosaurs but not dinosaurs themselves.
(Although experts continue to debate precisely where pterosaurs are rooted in life’s tree, made all the more complicated by the elusiveness of the very first pterosaurs in the fossil record.) More than that, pterosaurs are popular enough to be familiar but don’t enjoy the same celebrity status of dinosaurs. That means that images of the Mesozoic gliders tend to lag behind the latest science…
… is the only venomous lizard int he United States. Their fearsome claws are used mostly for digging (they spend the majority of their time underground or otherwise out of the hot desert sun) and climbing, rather than hunting. Eggs make up the largest portion of their diet, as well as baby birds and mammals, and the reptiles have a keen sense of smell to track them and other prey items down. They are binge eaters, eating large amounts (up to a third of their weight) all at once, followed by a prolonged fast; they may only eat five or ten times a year.
Their tail acts as fat and water storage, like a camel’s hump, helping them survive long periods between meals. Unlike snakes, Gila Monsters are unable to inject their venom, instead relying on capillary action and the clenching of the jaw muscles to draw the venom out. Because they are slow movers and hunt mostly helpless prey, the venom most likely serves a primarily defensive role - a hypothesis also supported by their aposematic salmon-and-black warning coloration. However, while you still don’t want to be bitten by one, a Gila Monster’s venom is unlikely to kill you - with improved treatment techniques, there have been no reported deaths as a result of a Gila Monster bite since 1939.
North America’s longest snake is the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi); males can reach 8 ft (2.5 m) or more in length. Found through much of the southeast, these nonvenomous snakes live in different habitats depending on the season. In the winter they prefer sandhill habitats, where they den in gopher tortoise burrows (sometimes cohabiting with the burrow’s owner). In the spring they shift to their summer breeding locations in riparian and wooded creek bottoms. When startled or threatened they’ll flatten their neck, hiss and rattle their tail, but they’re actually fairly docile and don’t often bite.
Also known as the Sonoyta Mud Turtle, the Sonora mud turtle is a species of kinosternid turtle native to the southern United States and Northern Mexico, centering around the Sonoran desert. The Sonora mud turtle usually inhabits streams and creeks where it patrols the bottom for invertebrates and the occasional small fish/frog.
They typically spend their entire lives underwater but will surface occasionally to bask/breathe. To cope with the harsh cold periods that come with desert life sonaran mud turtles will aestivate (become dormant) in a nearby stream bank, or on the bottom. They will also do this if their water source dries up, they migrate to a new source if the water does not return. Sonraran mud turtles are currently listed as near threatened, due mostly to habitat change and destruction.
Keepers at the Mountain Zoo in Germany are celebrating after successfully breeding Roti Island snake necked turtles (Chelodina mccordi) for the very first time. The species is considered to be extremely endangered and hails from Rote Island, which is south west of Timor and north of Australia. The newborns are currently around 3cm long but will grow to around 24cm
Eunotosaurus is an extinct genus of parareptile and possible close relative of turtles from the late Middle Permian (Capitanian stage) Karoo Supergroup of South Africa. It was once widely accepted as the missing link between turtles and their prehistoric ancestors. Many fossils have been found showing a semi-rigid, turtle-like rib cage, one which presumably necessitated a tortoise-like fashion of walking…
They were shaped like stocky lizards, with broad-cheeked skulls. Their cheeks sported a stout backward-pointing spike. They have historically been classed alongside the turtles under the Anapsida.
Up to the early Triassic, their teeth were sharp, indicating an insectivorous diet. Later in the Triassic their teeth became broader, indicating a switch to a herbivorous diet. They became extinct at the end of the Triassic.
Recent findings indicate that these animals may have been found in Antarctica in the Early Triassic, thereby the earliest evidence of tetrapods in the Antarctic.
Mesosaurs (“middle lizards”) were a group of small aquatic reptiles that lived during the early Permian period, roughly 299 to 270 million years ago. Mesosaurs were the first aquatic reptiles, having apparently returned to an aquatic lifestyle from more terrestrial ancestors. Their placement in relation to other reptiles is contested…
Protorothyrididae is a family of small, lizard-like Romeriid reptiles, related to modern “true reptiles” (eureptiles). Their skulls did not have fenestrae, as is also true of modern turtles and tortoises. Protorothyridids lived from the Late Carboniferous to Early Permian periods, in what is now North America.
or dusky pigmy rattlesnake, small ground rattlesnake, hog nosed rattler
About 20 inches long, it is quite thick for its size. The coloration of this snake can vary from pale grey to a dark charcoal, but always having reddish orange spots along its spine.
The rattle sounds like the buzzing of an insect. It feeds on frogs, mice and small vertebrate. Its bite is venomous, but rarely reported to be fatal. It is very common in Florida and some regions of Texas.