Pterosaur Extinction Revisited

Dr. Peter Wellnhofer, in his book The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs (Salamander Books, 1991) on page eleven mentions that fossilization is an exception to the general rule about what happens to organisms after death; he also mentions that this rarity of fossilization is particularly relevant to pterosaurs, for their bodies were light and fragile. I believe that this concept is generally accepted among paleontologists.

Life, not extinction, is what fossils mostly reveal

In my post of July 17, 2010, I mentioned a blog post (on Science Blogs) by the paleontologist Darren Naish, who has a special interest in pterosaurs. He said, “The fossil record convincingly demonstrates that pterosaurs became extinct . . . [by] 65 million years ago.” But he gives no line of reasoning for that declaration. In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs, Wellnhofer makes it clear that pterosaur extinction was not an event but a long process. I believe that Naish needs to make a choice here: Accept Wellnhofer’s proposition about gradual extinction of pterosaurs or give some line of reasoning for a quick extinction of many species of pterosaurs.

I suggest we all try to use clear thinking about this idea of universal extinction, this assumption that all species of pterosaurs became extinct. Somewhere, somebody (I believe it was Naish or Glen Kuban, or someone commenting on one of their blog posts) said, “If a group of organisms are absent from the fossil record for tens of millions of years, and if there is no evidence indicating their survival across or beyond that time, they should be assumed to be extinct.” That reasoning is faulty, for too many obvious exceptions shoot it down.

Kuban has admitted the possibility of extant pterosaurs but greatly doubts it. Both Naish and Kuban have fought vigorously to extinguish any hope for living pterosaurs in modern times. But where is the reasoning for universal extinction of all species of pterosaurs?

Both Naish and Kuban seem to have been oblivious to the obvious conclusion that Wellnhofer unwittingly allowed. If only a tiny portion of pterosaur remains have been discovered as fossils, how many species may have existed of which we are unaware! Since we have no fossil evidence for the life of many species of pterosaurs, how can we come to any conclusion about any extinction of even one of those undiscovered species? Protecting the reputation of standard paleontology should not be the primary objective of paleontologists: The first priority should be to know the truth.


For a few brief statements about pterosaur extinction (or lack thereof), see Questions and Answers.


12 thoughts on “Pterosaur Extinction Revisited

  1. By the end of the Late Cretaceous, it seems that only two or three pterosaur lineages were still in existence – there were not, so far as we know, 100s of species representing numerous lineages. Those Late Cretaceous pterosaur lineages persist to the end of the Maastrichtian age of the Late Cretaceous, but are absent from the fossil record of the entire Cenozoic. There is thus every reason for thinking that pterosaurs (a) were already at low diversity at the very end of the Late Cretaceous, and (b) died out during the mass extinction event that occurred at the end of the Late Cretaceous. There is no evidence for post-Cretaceous pterosaurs. None of this is in the least bit inconsistent with Peter Wellnhofer’s statement of 1991.

  2. I would like to look more deeply into this perspective within standard-model paleontology. (Many readers of my blog posts may be either eyewitnesses of apparent pterosaurs or supporters of alternate interpretations of dating fossils, namely American Biblical Creationists) I would like to ask some questions, including: How many pterosaur fossils have been discovered and dated in the Cretaceous?

  3. Answering questions like this would require substantial literature research, and even then it’s hard to answer, since people tend to describe single specimens of a given species, not report all the individuals discovered so far. Pterosaurs are not numerous fossils for several obvious reasons, but we’re talking about 1000s of specimens (Bennett, in his 2001 osteology of _Pteranodon_, refers to 1100 specimens of _Pteranodon_ alone). Nevertheless, there are several key references that at least give a good idea of the taxa involved, most notably…

    Barrett, P. M., Butler, R. J., Edwards, N. P. & Milner, A. R. 2008. Pterosaur distribution in time and space: an atlas. Zitteliana B, 28, 61-107.

    • Thank you, Mr. Naish. This does throw light onto the conclusions of the paleontologists who have expressed doubt in the possibility that a species of pterosaur has survived, based on the standard-models of paleontology, evolution, etc. – Even just the rough estimate of 1000’s of specimens gives me a better perspective than I had before.

      “Reports of Living Pterosaurs in the Southwest Pacific” (Creation Research Society Quarterly, Vol 45, #3) I wrote for an audience outside the perspective of standard-model biology. I see how strange this field of cryptozoology must appear to many paleontologists. Nevertheless, the analysis of eyewitness reports from around the world reveals things most paleontologists have probably never considered. I promise that this deserves a deeper look, a closer examination, than it has received by those who have been using the standard-model perspective.

  4. Pingback: Darren Naish Comments on Pterosaur Fossils | Modern Pterosaur

  5. Your ‘modern pterosaur’ site does not allow comments, so I guess I’ll post responses here. First of all, I suppose it goes without saying that I don’t undertand why anyone would adopt the philosophy of ‘biblical creationism’ in the first place – it’s a recent invention that seems incongruous with most religious ideas, not just with science (in other words, creationism is bad religion, not just bad science). And, anyway, the hypothetical existence of living pterosaurs would in no way weaken evolutionary theory any more than finding modern-day sharks, lizards or mammals does. The reason I (and most of my colleagues) reject the idea of ‘living pterosaurs’ is because the evidence is poor to non-existent, not because the hypothetical survival of pterosaurs to the present is at all problematical for any particular view of the world. I honestly think that ‘modern pterosaur’ sightings are hoaxes, embellishments, or misidentifications of bats or birds. There is nothing about the sightings or accounts that leads to the conclusion that living pterosaurs are really involved. You do realise that the ropen, duah, kongamato etc. accounts don’t describe animals that sound at all like pterosaurs as known from the fossil record? Unless, that is, you’re arguing that pterosaurs underwent a substantial amount of evolution during post-Cretaceous times.

    Anyway.. in answer to the questions on the ‘modern pterosaur’ site: (1) No, there was no evidence for the existence of fossil post-Cretaceous coelacanths prior to the discovery of the living forms, but there is now. (2) WRT “Is it possible that at least a few of those thousands of discovered pterosaur fossils actually prevented the strata from being dated as post-Cretaceous?”. No, the strata concerned are dated as Cretaceous on the basis of microfossils, magnetostratigraphy and copious other lines of data.

    Incidentally, the reason I’ve discovered your articles and blog posts is because you mention my name – I therefore receive alerts on blogger search and am led to your pages.

    Best wishes.

  6. This brings up a number of questions, but I’ll keep to one for the moment, regarding “the strata concerned are dated as Cretaceous on the basis of microfossils, magnetostratigraphy and copious other lines of data.” (reply #5 above) The “strata concerned” seems vague to me.

    On looking at the post on Modern Pterosaur (“Darren Naish Comments on Pterosaur Fossils”), it seems that the question was not about Cretaceous strata in general but only about the strata in which pterosaur fossils have been found.

    I believe that the best scientific progress often involves detailed investigations with specific particles of data, before drawing many conclusions. With thousands of fossils of pterosaurs having been discovered, how can any individual paleontologist keep track of them all? How can any individual be sure about all of those fossils?

    I recently read a book review from a reader who mentioned finding a pterosaur fossil in a desert. If he keeps it to himself (he is not, apparently, anything like a professional paleontologist), how can all paleontologists be sure that it was found in a stratum that was not post-Cretaceous? That is just one example. But how many pterosaurs fossils may have been discovered by amateurs without the knowledge of paleontologists!

  7. Hi. If you really want answers to these questions, you don’t need to ask me – you could look at the geological literature and find the answers yourself (I know this seems like a lot of hassle, and it is). When a given rock unit is said to be a certain age, you will find that there is typically an extensive literature showing why people have concluded that it is the age it is (this goes for strata exposed on the surfaces of deserts and such – these are the ones that yield the fossils frequently discovered as surface ‘float’). So far, all pterosaur fossils have come from strata that were already shown (on other lines of evidence) to be Triassic, Jurassic or Cretaceous. However, I do know of one case in which Cretaceous-style pterosaurs came from strata originally dated as Miocene. This proved to be a mistake – the strata were Cretaceous – but the pterosaurs weren’t the only piece of evidence that demonstrated this. And I have to say that you miss an important point here: the onus is not on me (or anyone else) to prove that there _aren’t_ post-Cretaceous pterosaurs – rather, if you think that there are post-Cretaceous pterosaurs, you have to demonstrate that there are. It’s not enough to say that there might be.

    • Thank you, Mr. Naish, for your comments. I believe you have well-represented the standard-model position of paleontology. If you or any of your associates ever come across a sighting report (account of what someone associates with or believes is a living pterosaur) that does not seem to fit “hoaxes, embellishments, or misidentifications of bats or birds” I will welcome comments on that; please let me know. But for now, I need to get back to the cryptozoological investigations, with a perspective that differs from standard-model paleontology.

      Some of the readers of my books and blog posts are eyewitnesses of apparent living pterosaurs, and most of those persons who have given me their reports—most of them appear to me credible, with accounts that seem unlikely to have been misidentifications or embellishments. (Eyewitnesses include Duane Hodgkinson, Brian Hennessy, Gideon Koro, Susan Wooten, Eskin Kuhn, Patty Carson, etc.) In respect for those eyewitnesses, I need to exercise control over the number and length of comments that reflect or appear to reflect disrespect for either their integrity or their sanity or their intelligence.

      Those who want to read about the possibility of “hoaxes, embellishments, or misidentifications of bats or birds” have many avenues to pursue outside this blog.

      Thank you, Mr. Naish, for your time.

  8. I personally do not believe that it a a massive coincidence that ALL pterosaur specimens ever found/described/recorded/seen by palaeontological experts happen to be explicitly Cretaceous or earlier. As soon as there’s sound evidence of their existence beyond that, then maybe they’d reconsider it!

    • I recognize that this is a popular perspective, the point of view of standard-model Western paleontology. But it is not the only perspective. I have found that the more-credible reports that I have received have been from eyewitnesses of various beliefs, backgrounds, nationalities, languages, and cultures. Some of those eyewitnesses have at least some confidence in standard Western models. That is why they have been so shocked and why some of them have come to doubt their own senses or even their own sanity. I choose to believe in those eyewitnesses and doubt standard models of Western society, in particular standard paleontology.

      Thank you for your comment on that perspective, but do not be surprised if at least some of the future comments that support standard models are not published on this blog. I believe we need to respect the experiences of eyewitnesses who have been ridiculed and even ostracized by those have over-confidence in those standard models of Western society.

      Human experience will prevail.

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