What does that vertebra look like?

This post is a bit more of a fun post based on some of my random thoughts when staring at pterosaur vertebrae. Spoiler: they are funny looking!

Anyone who has spent time in any sort of museum collections for any amount of time by yourself (or in fact with other people) knows that it can do strange things to your brain. I find that there is something about being in the back of a museum left to your own devices to sift through cabinets of material with not a soul in sight for hours that just drives me a little mad. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very enjoyable and lots of fun opening up cabinets of material, wondering what you might find next (if you want to know more, check out John Hutchinson’s recent post, “Delight in the museum” where he talks about just what happens and how it can be fun in the back, behind closed doors). However, it can also drive you a bit insane when you don’t know anyone in the city you’re in, and you have little human contact.

This was the case for me in January, when I had the amazing opportunity to spend 2 weeks in the collections at the American Museum of Natural History, looking at their pterosaurs and checking out the pterosaur exhibit, thanks to the Palaeontological Association who funded my visit. The first week wasn’t as bad because there were a few other researchers around. It was just after Christmas and people seemed to have to same idea as me, doing some research in between a visit home and going back to work. By the start of the second week, however, everyone else disappeared.

After the pterosaur exhibit finished, I got to look at the specimen I had been waiting for: Anhanguera santanae (AMNH 22555), the mother of all pterosaur fossils, figuratively speaking. It’s a lovely specimen with much of the skeleton present and preserved in three dimensions, and is a neat display when it’s out.

Anhanguera (AMNH 22555) on display

When in the back looking at the individual elements, however, it tells a different story. Of course it is still a wonderful fossil, but after a week of collections visits, I started seeing things in the fossils I hadn’t noticed before. Unfortunately, I’m not talking about an amazing scientific discovery. What I mean is that pterosaur vertebrae look weird. And they look like things. So here are a few of my favourites. Do you agree? What do you think they look like?

First we have the cervical vertebrae in posterior view. Or as I prefer to call them, “blobby men”. Although they are slightly creepy blobby men with their mouths in their stomach. Kind of like echinoderm blobby men.

1st cervical vertebra of AMNH 22555 (AKA the axis-atlas complex). In case you can’t see, that says “I’m going to eat you”.
6th cervical of AMNH 22555

In some ways, I think they also look like inuksuks, one of my favourite things from home. Inuksuks are (typically) large statues made of rocks in the shape of people, typically as markers to mark a route of travel, or specific place, in some way of navigation.

The next weird pterosaur vertebra we have is the anterior face of some dorsal vertebrae. To me they look like faces with really bushy eyebrows, a cone strange kind of cone head, and a wide open mouth. What do you think?

1st dorsal of AMNH 22555. It looks kind of like an old alien man with bushy eyebrows, or just really bone eyebrow ridges…

Finally, possibly my favourite one, was actually pointed out to me by the collections manager at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Canada. This is a cervical vertebra of a large azhdarchid pterosaur in the collections at the RTMP, which undeniably looks like a teddy bear. You can’t deny it!

Cervical vertebra of TMP 92.83.7. It’s a happy teddy!

And this, my friends, is what spending too long alone in collections does to you. Do you have any funny-looking fossils that look like something else? Share them!

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