A new paper in PLoS ONE, by Mark Witton and Mike Habib, re-evaluates claims that big pterosaurs were too big to fly. To make a long story short, multiple lines of evidence suggest that giants like Quetzalcoatlus really did take wing! One of my previous blog posts summarized the paper and featured the first part of an interview with senior author Mark Witton. That part of the interview focused on many of the scientific aspects of the research. Today, we'll highlight some of the other highlights. I think you'll find it illuminating!
This paper has received a fair bit of press coverage. Is there anything about the research that you wish had received more attention?
Our coverage was really good: as mentioned above, we ended up in the most unlikely of places along with getting pieces in much more familiar territory. In that respect, I can’t complain but, at the same time, the press really focused on the quadrupedal launch idea [illustrated at right, with a Pteranodon launching itself in this fashion; figure from Witton and Habib 2010] which, while still quite novel to most, was actually first proposed (in print) by Mike back in 2008. There was a fair amount of press coverage for the idea back then, too. Prior to that, though, both Mike [Habib] and Jim Cunningham, who developed the same idea independently of Mike, had given the idea considerable airing on the Dinosaur Mailing List. Bottom line: this latest paper really isn’t the first to comment on it in any capacity. We talked about it a lot, but we’re definitely not its origin. Still, the press really ran with it, despite the fact that the main thrust of our paper is that pterosaurs and birds are generally incomparable beyond very basic aspects of their flight mechanics, and that previous assumptions that they were had lead to probably incorrect assumptions about their way of life. Their disparate launch mechanisms are a particularly important part of our considerations, but they are only one part of many. It’s no big deal, really, but I’m a little concerned that some people will now associate quad launching with this paper and I really don’t want to steal the thunder away from Mike and Jim: they did the real work on it. I’m sure People in the Know will realise the score, but I’ve already had e-mails about the presentation of the quad launch in our new paper like we proposed it. Tell the world, folks: quadrupedal launch came from Mike and Jim! They’re the real geniuses here!
With you in the UK and Mike in the US, the paper is a very international collaboration. What sort of challenges, if any, were particular to this sort of cross-border work?
Mike and I met up twice during the work on the project at different conferences, but, that aside, we worked entirely through e-mail. Trite as it sounds, the internet is amazing: a project like this would be so much harder and longwinded without it. Throwing drafts of the MS at each other, bouncing ideas around and working on the figures was no sweat at all. We could have revisions done and sent back to each other as fast as we could turn them around. In that respect it was as efficient as working with someone in the same department, if not slightly more so, as meandering chats and tangential fieldwork anecdotes – always a risk of visiting the office of any academic – were largely kept out of our online conversations (we made up for it at conferences, though). The long duration spent putting the paper together, mentioned above, was mainly thanks to my workload with the pterosaur models, not anything to do with working internationally. The paper spent a long time sitting on my desk as my time for writing disappeared amidst a blur of fake fur, bluefoam and acrylic paints. So no, working internationally presented very few obstacles. I’m sure the story would be very different if we were working 20 years ago or so, but, today, you can work with whoever you want, wherever they are without a hitch. Well, assuming they check their in-box regularly, that is.
Thank you, Mark, for an informative interview!
Witton, M., & Habib, M. (2010). On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness. PLoS ONE, 5 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013982
[full disclosure: I am an editor at PLoS ONE, the journal in which this paper appeared]