Recently, information about a “new” species of pterosaur has been making the rounds. This is not a new phenomenon – stories like this often make the news. This animal has been touted as the largest pterosaur ever, and was reportedly flightless, both things making this an extremely significant animal in terms of understanding pterosaur diversity and ecology.
That is, if it’s true.
Extraordinary claims, such as largest pterosaur or first flightless pterosaur, require extraordinary evidence. The problem in this case, is that as it currently stands, there is no evidence. No scientific paper has been published on this specimen, and none of the PR material shows any of the specimen in question. It all knows an impressive looking skeletal mount, though I’m pretty sure the mount is a replica, not the bones itself. It’s also difficult given that some stories say they are able to reconstruct the skeleton from a large number of bones, while others seem to suggest there aren’t a lot. Again, we just don’t know.
The pterosaur itself comes from the Transylvanian Basin of Romania, dating back to the Latest Cretaceous. This is an area that is known for pterosaur material, including one of the largest known to date – Hatzegopteryx thambena. I have been to the sites that this material comes from, and have excavated pterosaur fossils here. In fact, I *think* I’ve even seen some of the material from this specimen, but it’s hard to know, given that there are no images or descriptions of the material. I cannot comment on how it compares to other pterosaurs, for example Hatzegopteryx, but I can say that what I have seen was from a very large pterosaur.
Some of my colleagues have been contacted by these news organisations to comment on the story. But how are they meant to comment? As scientists, how are we able to say anything at all about this so-called amazing find when we cannot read how the palaeontologists have come to these claims? Or how the material compares to other animals?
For example, in one article, I read that the animal weighed as much as half a tonne. Given that I’ve spent a significant amount of time so far in my research career studying how we estimate the mass of pterosaurs, I am very curious about how they got to this number. This is one of the main reasons why they say it’s flightless, but I am immediately suspicious about how they came to this number given that there are only a handful of bones known. It’s tough to estimate body mass in extinct animals, even more so when they are weird and don’t compare well to modern animals (like pterosaurs), and especially when they are incomplete. The fewer bones, the tougher (and less accurate) it is.
I am not saying that this animal is not new, or that it’s not the biggest, or that it’s not flightless. All I’m saying is how are we meant to say anything about it as a scientific community without a paper? Doing the PR before a paper comes out (or is even accepted, as it kind of seems like in this story) is unscientific. Publish the paper and let the community form opinions before going to the press.
For someone who is really interested in pterosaurs, especially large ones, it’s frustrating to see amazing stories like that, but without being able to see the science behind it.