Australia's iron dragon, Ferrodraco lentoni, a species of pterosaur named by your host Adele Pentland in 2019 with help from the team at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs including fossil hunter Bob Elliott and honourary fossil technician Ali Calvey. Plus info on marine micro fossils in French amber.
Today on the show, we are talking about the Australian iron dragon, Ferrodraco lentoni. This episode I get to do my favourite thing in the world which is talk about pterosaurs! Specifically I'm gonna tell you about my son, AKA Butch, AKA Ferrodraco lentoni, the species I named in back in 2019.
Strap yourself in and get ready for take off.
Pals in Palaeo presents Ferrodraco.
Pals in Palaeo acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pays our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging, and extends respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. This episode was recorded on Koa country, in Winton, central western Queensland, and the holotype and only known specimen of Ferrodraco lentoni was also found on Koa country.
This is Pals in Palaeo the podcast where we fly through the form, function and family groupings of your favourite fossils. I'm your host, paleontologist, grazier and all round Aussie pterosaur enthusiast Adele Pentland. You can keep up to date with the show and my research by following @PalsinPalaeo on Instagram
Before I start throwing Ferrodraco facts your way, I need to be honest with you... I'm really nervous about doing today's episode. Which is kind of weird to say because I named Ferrodraco as a new species in 2019, so I know it inside and out. Literally, this is the one topic which I could claim to be an expert on, and yet the imposter syndrome is hitting hard.
I guess what it comes down to is that I'm nervous that I'll stuff it up or yeah, that I'll hate this episode when I listen back to it but figured there was no time like the present and couldn't continue justify saving it for like, the 100th episode.
Because I love Ferrodraco so much I did make a special request to include it in the cover art for the podcast. The very talented team at Crumpet Club House smashed it out of the park, they are @crumpetclubhouse on Instagram and a big special shout out to Jenny who came up with the cover art, you can follow her @jennyzdesign. I'll also include links for their social media handles in the shownotes.
RANDOM FOSSIL FACT
Before we launch into pterosaur talk and facts on the form, function and family of Ferrodraco, first things first, it's time for the Random Fossil Fact
Consider this your in-flight safety briefing before take-off. You know, to prepare you for all the other facts that are gonna be flying at ya thick and fast.
Today's Random Fossil Fact has been stuck in my head since 2015. Back then I was studying at Monash University, doing my honours degree which is here in Australia is like doing a Master's research project, within the space of one year.
At that time my research project was on amber... anyway this new company called Biosyn Genetics wanted dino DNA and... kidding. I was on a mission to find cool stuff trapped in amber, that much is true though and describe it as best I could in my thesis.
Anyway, since I'd never done a research project before, never worked on amber I needed to figure out what was common, your garden variety bioinclusions so to speak, and what was unique. Essentially, I needed to get my head around what other researchers around the world had found in amber. So I spent a lot of time reading through papers and it was during that time that I found the most unexpected paper.
This research was published by Vincent Girard and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008. This team of researchers were working on amber from the Cretaceous of France and found a bunch of microscopic marine fossils on the inside.
I'm just gonna read a bit from the abstract of the paper, otherwise I might get it twisted:
"Diverse marine diatoms as well as radiolarians, sponge spicules, a foraminifer, and a spine of a larval echinoderm were found in Late Albian and Early Cenomanian amber samples of southwestern France"
So just to repeat the part of the stuff what I said about the things (that was a Simpsons quote by the way, bonus points if you can figure out which episode it's from). So Girard et al.'s amber is about 100 million years old so pretty old.
But the marine fossils are basically things that you might find today if you grabbed some beach sand and looked at it underneath a microscope.
In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, picture yourself walking along a beach absolutely covered in shells. Not only are there the shells that you can see, but on the microscopic level, there's even more stuff you can't see with the naked eye. If you've never seen sand on a microscopic level, you're seriously missing out. It's beautiful but also kind of alien and otherworldly.
My brother got me a really good book on this, if you're interested in seeing exactly what I'm talking about, the book is The Secrets of Sand: A Journey Into the Amazing Microscopic World of Sand.
I'll put a link to it in the shownotes for this episode, including a link to where you can buy it on Amazon. It's not an affiliate link, I'm not fancy enough to have anything like that, but I thought it'd be easier this way. Plus, if you're local library doesn't have it and you're interested, by all means go ahead and get yourself a copy.
Getting back to the Random Fossil Fact though, and this weird French amber with microscopic marine creatures. They didn't find just one thing inside their amber, there were multiple inclusions from multiple groups of animals. Altogether they found sponge spicules, radiolarians, foraminifer, and the spine from an echinoderm.
Echinoderms are the group that include sea urchins, sea stars, brittle stars, sand dollars, sea cucumbers and sea lilies. These are animals by the way, I know the name sea lilies is a bit misleading, as are the Pokémon Lileep and Cradily which are grass-types, but all Echinoderms are animals. Based on the shape of the spine embedded in this 100 million year old amber, it was the larval stage of a sea urchin, so a little baby sea urchin.
Now a sponge is also an animal, even though yes it doesn't have organs, a nervous system or even symmetry. Sponge spicules are either made up of calcium carbonate, which is what sea shells are made up of, or they can be made of silica which is what quartz and sand is made of. Girard et al. found both types of spicules in their amber and identified them based on their shape which kind of looks like... well they're like mini wavebreakers. You might know what I'm taking about if you played a lot of Animal Crossing New Horizons during the pandemic like I did.
Lastly, radiolarians and foraminifer are single-celled organisms that along with a bunch of other stuff make up zooplankton. Again, like everything else, you only find these types of things in shallow marine environments.
So how did this stuff end up in amber? 100 million years ago, trees near the eastern coast of the young Atlantic ocean were oozing with resin. That resin, while it was still sticky trapped these marine micro-organisms inside and then fossilised as amber. It is hands down the weirdest fossil I can think of, just because I never would have even thought something like this would turn up in amber.
I love a good, weird fossil and as I said at the start of the Random Fossil Fact, amber was the first thing I got to work on as a student palaeontologist.
Now let’s, take to the skies and talk more about pterosaurs and my boy, Ferrodraco.
Normally on the show we talk about Form, Function, Family and end with a bit of Miscellaneous info. But this isn't JUST another episode, today's show is about a fossil that I've spent years working on and named with the help of my friends and colleagues.
Lemme highlight this: discovering Ferrodraco was a team effort. I couldn’t have done the science on this fossil without dozens of volunteers and the folks at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs.
We’ll be hearing from Bob Elliott, who discovered the Ferrodraco fossil, as well as honourary fossil technician Ali Calvey who set Ferrodraco free from its rocky prison. Both Bob and Ali also got to be a part of the 2017 dig season and helped excavate this fossil in the field.
I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work on this incredible fossil, if it hadn’t been discovered by Bob Elliott. Bob’s parents, David and Judy started the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History, so from a young age Bob has known what dinosaur bone and other fossils look like. Bob has discovered multiple fossil sites, but the site Ferrodraco came from is pretty unique.
I caught up with Bob and had a yarn to him about what it was like when he made that discovery:
Bob: So I’d gone out there to spray burr. I was expecting a big day there spraying burr. It wasn’t as big a job as I thought it was gonna be. I was expecting to be there all day, but I had it all finished by 11 o’clock. So I had a little bit of time on my hands. I was at a certain part of the creek where, it was a real fossiliferous area. Basically, it had a lot of that silt rock. It just looked the spot, there’s gotta be something there.
So I went walking up there. And sure enough, went up there, 15 minutes, found nothing. I mean, you never do. When you’re looking for it, you don’t find these things.
So I had pretty much given up and I’d started walking back down to where the 4-wheeler was. And it was actually on my way back down, into the creek when I came across this piece of bone.
It would be about 10cm long, and if you imagine a sheep leg bone that’s just been cut in half. That’s, from a distance, because I saw this thing, probably about 3 metres before I came across it.
And as soon as I bent down to pick it up, I knew straight away, that’s a fossil. I said “no, that’s too heavy, it’s fully fossilised, this is dinosaur era”.
Adele: When you find something like that, it's super important to remember to record as much information as possible. If you find something you think might be a site, it pays to mark it in some way, and take a GPS coordinate with your phone.
Bob has found half a dozen fossil sites and often carries with him the tape surveyor's use when they're out on a job and little steel pegs. The kind you'd use to set up a tent when camping. So when he came across this site, he marked it and took photos showing what was found and where they came from. And this made it a lot easier when a team returned to the site to excavate the area.
It's also important to remember, if you find one bone, there's a pretty good chance that you'll find more. Here's Bob, bringing us back to that eureka moment when he'd made that chance discovery.
Bob: And then straight away I knew, “you can see that’s a small bone, that’s not off a sauropod, that’s not off anything we normally find out here usually. So, this is exciting!”
So then I started looking around, and it actually, to be perfectly honest, for the first, I reckon for the first minute. I did not find anything else. It took me a little while just to get my eye in. And once I got my eye in, I started finding a lot smaller pieces. And lift up this tussock here, and then you find a little bit more there, and yeah. By about 15 minutes, I’d probably found between 10-15 bones?
Adele: Like so many of us, Bob learned about pterosaurs as a kid through Walking With Dinosaurs. I'll talk about this a little later but pterosaurs have hollow bones, which is an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to fly.
Unfortunately, that also means that their bones get broken very easily, and is part of the reason why they're such rare fossils.
Because it's a comparatively complete specimen, Bob rates it as one of his best finds yet. But his love of pterosaurs didn't start with this specimen. In fact, they've always been one of his favourites.
Bob: I dunno, I don’t think I can top what I found to be perfectly honest. I mean as a kid, pterosaurs were always my favourite, dinosaurs?
Adele: You might’ve noticed that Bob hesitated a little bit when he called pterosaurs dinosaurs, because he now knows they’re not dinosaurs, but when he was younger, he didn’t realise they belonged to two separate groups. Which is a pretty common misconception. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say on that. Back to the interview.
Bob: No well they were! Because… What was it, ah, Walk With Dinosaurs? Was that the TV show?
Adele: Walking with dinosaurs?
Bob: Walking with Dinosaurs! And that’s the show. I loved that as a kid. That came out when I was probably around the 10-13 years old? And so, it was just fantastic. And there was this series there with Ornithocheirus? Is that right? Yeah, the pterosaur. And it was my favourite. I watched that series… a lot. And so it was my favourite but I never really dreamed of finding my own because I thought: the chances of actually finding something like that… is just… oh c’mon that’s ridiculous.
And to be perfectly honest, when I first found it, out in the creek there, I found a piece of bone. And straight away, I thought “Well it’s not sauropod. It’s not Pleistocene, it’s not recent, it’s old. It’s from the dinosaur age… but it’s small. What can it be? It’s quite interesting”
But pterosaur was not something I thought of, at all. And it wasn’t until looking for around about 10 minutes I found other little bits of bones. Quite interesting pieces. But after a while I found a piece.
And it had a little bit of rock around it, so you could only see bone on some sections but then I noticed teeth sticking out. And these teeth we’re talking quite long, sharp teeth about 2 cm long.
And so, that was exciting. Straight away I thought, “OK, this means fish-eater,” so I thought, “That’s marine, it’s gonna be elasmosaur or something like that”. That’s what I thought, it’s gonna be elasmosaur, they got nice sharp teeth like that so… That’s what I thought I had! I thought I had marine, I thought it was gonna be some sort of plesiosaur or elasmosaur, and that’s what I had.
Adele: As I mentioned before, Bob knows quite a lot about fossils because it's been a big part of his life. Even though he didn't study palaeontology at university, I'm the first to admit, sometimes he knows more about fossils than I do, because he has years of hands on experience.
Above all else, Bob is a problem solver: running a farm isn't easy and stuff breaks down all the time. Even in the most stressful situations, Bob is almost always calm and collected.
His logical reasoning, combined with years of experience lead him to the conclusion that this wasn't another sauropod site. But, initially, he thought he had a very different type of fossil on his hands. He thought he had discovered some sort of plesiosaur, and it wasn't until he brought the fossil to the museum that we actually worked out what it was.
Bob: And the most exciting thing, other than Harry super gluing his finger to his eye. It was going through every bone, and then just having the discussion between all of us, what it was. Trying to work out what it was.
And we came to the conclusion, that it just did not look right for a plesiosaur or something like that. And I’m pretty sure it was my dad that mentioned, pterosaur.
As soon as he said that, we sort of all looked at each other and sort of think, “Ah, didn’t think of that. Surely not. Can’t be that”
And then we started looking online. The more we looked, the more it just looked like pterosaur. Yeah, that was pretty exciting that day, when we came to the conclusion, it has to be a pterosaur.
Ali: And once Bob found it and we identified it as a pterosaur, it became quite a treasure.
Adele: That's fossil preparator and honourary technician with the Australian Age of Dinosaurs, Ali Calvey. I first met Ali on a dinosaur dig on the Victorian Coast as part of dinosaur dreaming, which I mentioned in episode on Koolasuchus, and... I had no idea that we'd cross paths again in Winton.
In fact, if you travelled back in time and told me that Ali would be prepping Australia's most complete pterosaur fossil and I would have the honour of naming that same fossil specimen... I would have told you you were hepped up on goofballs. Not only did Ali prep the pterosaur, she was kind enough to help me plan my wedding which was at the Age of Dinosaurs museum.
Ali is one of the kindest people I know and it was wonderful to have her prep the pterosaur, since she also got to participate in the dig that year.
As Ali's quick to point out, the whole team got involved and got behind this incredible discovery.
Ali: Several stages occurred before it even came to the lab for me to prep. First of all, there was the finding of it. And I think that is a very special process. People often forget, that, finding things in the field is a methodical process. So, when you do start finding these wonderful specimens, you've got to treat them with the utmost respect, at every stage.
And then it was a case of well, we had to try and find as much of this material as possible. So we were meticulously looking through the material from the site. And every twig, and rock and clump of soil was thoroughly examined, and then we had the washing and sieving.
And then Judy Elliott did an amazing job assessing everything that was found, stabilising it, puzzling it, observing it, and getting it ready for the final prep in the laboratory. So there’s a number of different processes that occur, before anyone even puts a tool to it.
Adele: Helping dig up and have the privilege of naming Ferrodraco is easily one of the best things I've gotten to be a part of. It's wild to think that at the time, when David Elliott gave me first dibs on working on this fossil, I was literally a nobody, I didn't have a single publication to my name and I was entrusted with the best fossil pterosaur ever found in Australia. The only thing I had going for me is that Age of Dinosaurs knew I was super keen to work on their fossils for a postgraduate research project. Working on Ferrodraco absolutely changed my life, and I don't think I would have been given such a massive opportunity if I had stayed in Melbourne where I grew up.
A couple months after Bob found this incredible fossil, we had a team helping dig at the site as part of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum annual dig and the whole team was buzzing with excitement.
Helping run that dig, was a pretty steep learning curve because even though I'd done a little dinosaurs digging beforehand, it was like getting thrown in the deep end. At the time I was 23 and altogether had maybe 2 weeks of dig experience and there were definite growing pains... but I learned so much from that experience.
We ended up with 10% of the skeleton which was a crazy amount when you consider that before this, every other pterosaur fossil in Australia was one bone or one partial bone. At the moment, Ferrodraco is the most complete pterosaur known from Australia but I reckon it's only a matter of time before we find an even better specimen.
The genus name I picked, Ferrodraco literally means the Iron Dragon is so fitting for this specimen because its preserved in this gorgeous, ironstone rich rock. I also love the nickname Butch, in honour of Butch Lenton the previous mayor of Winton. But as it turns out, this incredible fossil almost ended up with a very different nickname.
Bob: Definitely two names. One was Arthur, the other one was Butch.
Butch just sounded perfect, but yeah no, Butch was a very well known man in our area. He was a great mayor, great fella, and it was really great to remember him in that way.
Adele: I can't think of a better way of keeping his spirit alive and paying tribute to him since he was, as Bob said, yeah just such a great guy and the community was devastated when he passed away in 2017. The species name, lentonii is also on honour of Butch Lenton, so together the genus and species name means Lenton's Iron Dragon.
Before we could name it though, we needed to remove the rock covering the specimen and directly observe every single bone. As you heard before, Ali prepped Ferrodraco and volunteers on dinosaur digs across Australia. Like so many of us, her passion and enthusiasm for scientific discovery is a big part of what drives her.
Ali: I’ve got a passion for fossils anyway. And, digging… it is just so exciting. To be a part of that whole process of discovery. And the prepping is just the next stage.
Adele: I, personally, find it very difficult to prep fossils, because I'm a slightly anxious person and it's really easy for me to get inside my own head and worry and spiral and stuff like that. Part of it, is because... there's always a chance that you've got something that we've never seen before. And, it might be the only one of its kind in the world!
Ali sort of thinks the same but she's a bit more Zen about it and also a ton of experience when it comes to using the tools in the lab.
Ali: Everything deserves respect. Every tiny fragment should be given the same respect, as, the best specimen you’ve got. Because, you just truly do not know what’s in there until you start prepping it properly.
Adele: I mentioned before that Ali is an honourary technician at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. Most of the fossil prep in our lab is lead by volunteers. Staff guide them and give advice on how to approach each fossil, but there are over 300 honourary technicians on the books, some as young as 12 who spend hours upon hours working on some of Australia's most unique fossils.
Since Ali is now based in Winton, she's one of our most dedicated volunteers but despite spending countless hours in our lab, she's still one of our most enthusiastic fossil preppers.
Ali: Everytime I drive up to the Jump-Up, I get excited. It is something that I always hoped I might be able to do. But of course, I always thought I that I might end up going on digs overseas.
But of course, there is so much going on in Australia that a lot of people, they’re not aware of. They don’t realise how much science is occurring, and the amount of effort that’s being put into preserving our ancient history.
Adele: The fossil prep lab in Winton is probably one of Australia's best kept secrets.
I mentioned before Age of Dinosaurs has over 300 honourary technicians. Lemme just clarify, they're not all working in the lab at the same time. Think at any one time there's a maximum of 10 people on the tools.
The other thing I want to mention, is if you're interested in volunteering in the lab, or on the digs, I'll put links in the shownotes so you can find out more. We have people of all ages volunteer with us and have even been able to convert tourists as they travel through to come back and volunteer in the lab.
Ali: A lot of people when they come through the lab, are just reinvigorated with that enthusiasm for for dinosaurs and science and fossils in general. And it’s lovely to see it. It’s not just kids, it’s people of all ages. And they never ever thought that they would get a chance to see it, and to participate is just mind-blowing for most people.
Adele: For a lot of people who visit the museum, the lab and its volunteers are a highlight. It's pretty special to get to see everyone working away and see some incredible fossil specimens.
Ali: People are quite fascinated. They often ask in the lab, “How long will it take you to finish that specimen?”
And you go, “I’m sorry I can’t tell you” laughs
Because every single specimen, has its own difficulty. The smallest thing can take just as long as the side of a well-preserved rib. So, you never know until you’ve finished.
Adele: Speaking of small, delicate fossils, OK I'm biased but it is nothing short of a miracle that Bob found this fossil when he did. The Winton area and other parts of Australia have what’s called blacksoil which is a self-mulching or rotational soil, which as the name suggests, moves around because it’s super clay rich. It’s important for those of us, interested in finding dinosaurs and other fossils, because material a couple metres underground will eventually work its way up to the surface, through the self-mulching process. In Winton, the blacksoil is basically everywhere, except for the Jump-Ups or hills, and the creek systems, and the latter preserve fossils from the Pleistocene, so think of the megafauna: giant kangaroos, Diprotodon which is the largest marsupial to live and other bizarre and fantastic creatures.
If Ferrodraco hadn’t been preserved in that creek, the self-mulching soil wouldv’e ground Butch’s bones into dust long before Bob or anyone else for that matter had a chance to spot them.
Bob: And because these bones are so small, for them to come up through the blacksoil over thousands of years, it never would have made it. It would have disintegrated. Never would have found anything so, yeah. It’s a bit unbelievable really to have found something that I loved as a kid.
Maybe it still is, I’m not sure, the most complete pterosaur in Australia.
Adele: still is.
Bob: It still is… for now! laughs
Adele: oh yeah, might find another more complete one, we’ll see.
Bob: Yeah we’ll see. Absolutely. I think it’s only a matter of time, but they’re not going to be easy to find.
Adele: Look, we're working on it, but to this day, Ferrodraco is still the most complete pterosaur ever found in Australia. I hope you enjoyed hearing Bob tell us what it was like to find Ferrodraco, and Ali's perspective as a fossil preparator. Without them, and so many others, our scientific understanding of this specimen would be stuck at square one.
We've heard a bit about the discovery of this specimen and what went on behind the scenes, let's now talk about the form, function and family grouping of Ferrodraco.
Since this is the first pterosaur for Pals in Palaeo, let's talk first about form, before we get into function and family grouping. You might have noticed I keep saying the word pterosaur, and not pterodactyl. Lemme be clear on this, pterosaurs and pterodactyls aren't the same thing. A pterodactyl is a type of pterosaur, just like roses are a type of plant, and dogs are a type of mammal.
Pterosaurs are an extinct group of flying reptiles. They lived at the same time as the dinosaurs during the Mesozoic period, making their first appearance in the fossil record at the start of the Triassic. Like dinosaurs and marine reptiles, pterosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period when a ridiculously large meteorite 10km wide smacked into the Earth, hitting the Yucatan Peninsula near modern day Mexico.
Fossils of pterosaurs are pretty rare because their bones are hollow.
Pterosaurs have wings, which like birds and bats, are actually their arms which have become super specialised over millions of years of evolution. So that's two wings, two legs, a head and tail.
We tried explaining this to our next door neighbour over the phone once, and in case you're wondering why we were talking to our neighbour by phone and instead of over the fence, it's because we live in the middle of nowhere and they're about 30km away. Anyway, trying to explain to our neighbour what a pterosaur looks like, and he's been a farmer all he's life and he's 80. Had real trouble explaining to him the what the body of a pterosaur was like. He was picturing a four legged animal with a pair of the wings on the back, like a Welsh dragon situation. Anyway, there isn't an animal alive today that has four legs and a set of wings coming off the back so just park that and instead imagine wearing one of those wingsuits.
Speaking of wings though, let's take a minute to focus on what the structure of the wing looks like. A pterosaur wing is I guess closest to a bat wing, since both are made up of skin attached to the bones in the hand which extends all the way down to the ankle. So if you were to draw it, you'd be able to see blood vessels which is kinda spooky. The biggest difference between a pterosaur and a bat wing is that bats have 5 digits that for all intents and purposes, are about the same size, but pterosaurs have only 4 digits. The first three are tiny, and the fourth is basically the whole wing.
Ferrodraco is a pterodactyloid, which is a group also known as the short tailed pterosaurs. Pterodactyloids also tend to have bigger wingspan, and based on the wing bones we have in Butch, i.e. parts of the ulna, radius and first wing phalanx, the wingspan would've been 4 metres or a little over 13 feet.
I feel like if something that big were in the skies today and divebombed me I'd probably dive into the bushes or for whatever cover I could find basically. Like, compared to most of the winged animals whizzing around today, that is HUGE. The only thing that approaches that size is the wandering albatross.
Unlike the wandering albatross and modern birds Ferrodraco also had a jaw filled with dozens of spike-shaped teeth. Not all pterosaurs had teeth, there's a couple famous ones that had beaks like Pteranodon and Quetzalcoatlus. When Ferrodraco closed its mouth, the teeth interlocked, so it's kind of like pulling a zipper closed or holding hands with someone and their fingers interlocking with yours. The big advantage here is that those teeth can then trap and hold onto slippery fish and squid.
Before we talk about Function the last anatomical feature I want to talk about is the shape of Ferrodraco's head.
Lots of pterosaurs in the Ornithocheiridae have a premaxillary crest, or bony extension at the tip of the snout. Not all ornithocheirids have this, but most do and it seems to be something that develops during adulthood. The shape is very unique and there isn't an animal alive today I can really use as a reference guide. Probably the easiest thing would be to look at the cover art for the podcast, Ferrodraco is in the top right hand corner, and I'll also post a photo of me holding Ferrodraco on the Pals in Palaeo Instagram. If you've seen Walking With Dinosaurs and remember the pterosaur Tropeognathus, it also has a premaxillary crest, it's just a little more rounded compared to the one Butch has. At this point, you're probably wondering why would an animal have a head shaped like this, and to be quite honest, palaeontologists have been scratching their heads and asking themselves the same question for decades. Palaeontologists used to think that the shape of the crest could be used to define different species, but more recent work suggests this isn't always the case.
Weve talked about the form of Ferrodraco, let's talk now about Function and discuss what we think Ferrodraco was doing in its environment.
When biologists and palaeontologists struggle to come up with a simple explanation, for why an animal might have a somewhat strange appearance, they try and look for other examples. For me, personally, I have done a lot of cringeworthy things and had some very questionable haircuts because I thought it might impress a boy I had a crush on.
That's right, the premaxillary crest is probably just something flashy for show to attract members of the opposite sex. There's some evidence to suggest that this structure might have also played a role in thermoregulation, i.e. maintaining the animal's overall body temperature but considering the number of fossils that have been found for this group, there's maybe a handful of specimens that seem to preserve little grooves and pits for blood vessels so it's still up for debate.
Obviously the other aspects of Ferrodraco's body plan are a little easier to understand. Wings aren't good for digging holes, but they allowed pterosaurs to take to the skies, making them the first vertebrates to do so. A pterosaur this big couldn't climb trees, but they could walk around on the ground with a quadrapedal gait, so on all fours, but the wing wouldn't have been touching the ground. Fossilised pterosaur tracks preserve the first three digits on their hand pushing into the ground, but the 4th digit, their "wing finger" is lifted off the ground. Which makes sense, right? You don't want to be dragging your wing around when you walk, that'll mess up and tear the skin on your wing.
I mentioned before that Ferrodraco and other related pterosaurs have what's called a "fish-grab" dentition, which does what it says on the tin, it grabs fish and other slippery little suckers so they can't escape.
Pterosaurs are somewhat infamous swimmers, in fact the first pterosaur fossils found by white scientists were interpreted as demonic penguins, a description which I stan. I mean, birds and pterosaurs are as separate as cats and dogs, but it conjures up this image of pterosaurs diving through water for fish. So even though having wings for arms probably isn't the greatest when you're trying to swim, Ferrodraco would've been just fine. In fact, this species would've had no trouble launching out of the water and into the air. I'll put a link to a paper on this in the shownotes, technically those researchers were studying Anhanguera, a close cousin of Ferrodraco but it's still an air-tight argument. Pun intended. Speaking of Anhanguera, let's talk taxonomy and try and untangle the mess that is Ferrodraco's family group.
OK, I'm not gonna sugar-coat this. Even though understanding the evolutionary history of fossils is super important and can help us understand the animals around us today, it can be kind of difficult and confusing to understand. Even a little frustrating.
In fact, it can be so frustrating that if you catch me on a bad day, and say, "what's wrong Adele?" I'll say something like, "everything sucks," or, "taxonomy is fake". Of course, it's not fake, it's just a framework we use to try and put things into neat little boxes. But the world doesn't always fit into neat little boxes
And the family groupings of pterosaurs is trying and difficult, imagine a mischievous step-son, but worse. Not all aspects of pterosaur taxonomy are hard to understand, but the branch of the family tree that I predominantly work on is... well it's not exactly simple and straightforward.
The big group, and one of the first pterosaur families named was the Ornithocheiridae, and the definition of this group, is based on the position of one species of pterosaur, Ornithocheirus simus. As you might have guessed, Ornithocheirus simus is one of the earliest species of pterosaur that was named. The problem with it, is that it's not the greatest specimen in the world, the fossil is just the very tip of the upper jaw. To make matters worse, there haven't been very good specimens found since then. Because this specimen is a partial jaw and nothing else, when we try and work out where it sits in the pterosaur family tree, it can jump around a bit in terms of its position. In fact, more recent work keeps pushing it further and further to the base of the tree. This isn't because there's anything wrong with me research, on the contrary, with each new discovery we learn more and more. It's just that, Ornithocheirus simus is a bit like Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph. Cute and scrappy, but kind of incomplete and glitching around everywhere. Unlike Vanellope though, Ornithocheirus can't control it.
So yeah, generally speaking Ferrodraco belongs to this big group called the Ornithocheiridae. Another name that pops up is the Anhangueridae which is named after a genus of pterosaurs from Brazil called Anhanguera. Some researchers have argued in the past that Ornithocheiridae and Anhangueridae are basically the same thing and that the name we had first, i.e. Ornithocheiridae was first in line so it has what's called "taxonomic priority ". Others argue that Anhangueridae is a group that's fits in Ornithocheiridae. This is hard to wrap your head around, so imagine if you will, a nesting doll situation but with animal names. Pterosauria is the big doll, within that we have the Pterodactyloidea or short tailed pterosaurs, after that the next level is Ornithocheiridae, followed by the Anhangueridae and in this example, the very smallest doll is Ferrodraco.
Not everyone in the pterosaur palaeontology community agrees on how to use the name Ornithocheiridae, and I feel like we're already getting lost in the weeds of taxonomic discussion, so we'll zoom back out. Regardless of the label on the wine, we can still enjoy it. There's also a couple of things that are constant and mainstays when figuring out the family grouping of Ferrodraco.
There is no doubt about it, Ferrodraco belongs to this... group. For the rest of the show I'm just gonna call it Ornithocheiridae just to keep things simple, no other reason. Ornithocheirid pterosaurs are mostly found in the Early Cretaceous and pop up all across the globe, with lots of fossils found in Brazil, Morocco, China, England and here in Australia. Generally speaking, pterosaurs in this family are a decent size, with wingspan estimates varyimg between 4 and up to 8 m, which is frighteningly large. Just FYI there are pterosaurs that were even bigger, and I'll definitely be talking about them in a future episode, but today's focus is Ferrodraco.
Everytime Ferrodraco is included in a phylogenetic analysis, which is basically a family tree with animal species instead of uncle Bob and Aunt Margaret, anytime I or another pterosaur palaeontologist does one of these and includes Ferrodraco, it ends up next to another Australian pterosaur Mythunga camara. Muthunga is also from central western Queensland, and is just a little bit older.
Sometimes these two, the special two, are joined by Tropeognathus mesembrinus from Brazil, made famous by Walking With Dinosaurs, and sometimes, our dynamic duo are joined by another Aussie pterosaur Thapunnngaka shawi.
This phenomenon of the Australian pterosaurs grouping together lead Tim Richards to the theory that there's been an endemic radiation of Australian pterosaurs within Ornithocheiridae. That would mean that some ancestral ornithocheirid migrated over to Australia, and its descendants then lived in the central western Queensland region for millions of years, evolving and separating off into different species. Which is kind of interesting, since these pterosaurs were clearly incredible at flying and yet the science seems to suggest they weren't migrating all across the globe. Of course, when we find more fossils, we'll get a clearer picture of what's going on and see whether this theory holds water.
Last thing before we wrap up, as you might’ve guessed from the random Vanellope von Schweetz reference, I'm a pop culture nerd and love when there's a cross over between fossils and toys... movies... you name it.
Since Ferrodraco was named in 2019, it hasn't clocked in any TV or movie appearances so there's no Ferrodraco IMDB profile.
That said, to the delight of my mum, Ferrodraco has its own Wikipedia page. Like, I cannot tell you how excited she was for me. To her, that was when I'd made the big leagues. Like, forget having a verified social media handle with a blue tick. My name on a Wikipedia page that wasn't written by me? To her that was when I had transcended and become like, a legit researcher. For me, though, when they make a Ferrodraco Yowie, that'll be the moment when I peak as an Aussie palaeontologist. Like, put that on my tombstone I could die happy if my pterosaur was immortalised in plastic and packaged up with foil and chocolate. They did make a generic pterosaur when they released the extinct animals series, I think it was Lost Kingdom or something like that but yeah. If you're listening and you work for Cadbury or you know someone who can make this ridiculous dream of mine a reality, PLEASE GET IN TOUCH, I'll, I'll drop everything to make it happen. Anyway, maybe one day that'll exist but until then I should probably finish telling you where else you can find Ferrodraco.
You can find today's pterosaur and other fossil friends from the Winton region featured in the picture book 'Gordo the Guardian' by Inge Daniels. You can follow them and see more of their illustration work on Instagram @_ingedaniels and I'll put links to their stuff in the shownotes, so you can check it out and a link to buy Gordo the Guardian from the Age of Dinosaurs online shop. Seriously considering getting myself signed up as an affiliate with the sheer number of books I'm recommending this episode, my goodness.
Last, but certainly not least. Probably the biggest thing that's happened since naming Ferrodraco is its inclusion in last year's Australia Post stamp series. My boy, Ferrodraco is giving off big main character energy, like of the 5 prehistoric animals featured, Ferrodraco is smack bang in the middle. I love how it turned out and it was an absolute stoked to work with Peter Trusler, like I said in the Koolasuchus episode, he brings fossils back to life through his paintings, they're that good. I do eventually want to do an episode on what it was like to do scientific consulting on the Australia Post Dino Stamp Series but, only if that's something that you want to hear. Lemme know if that interests you, DM me on Instagram @Pals in Palaeo and I will make it happen.
I hope you enjoyed this episode, I had a lot of fun putting this one together and sharing what I've learned over the years about this incredible fossil I was lucky enough to work on. I've got a few more things up my sleeve research-wise on Butch, but it's very much a work in progress so it's all hush hush until the paper is finished and online. I'll give you a hint, it has something to do with the research lab over joined at Curtin University. Anyway, only time will tell but for now you'll just have to wait and see.
A transcript of today's episode and all previous episodes is online. You can find that, plus a list of resources related to today's episode in the show notes and links to the other random things I've mentioned today like the Crumpet Club House social media handles, they'll be there too.
Lots of people to thank in this episode, course I couldn't have done this research and this episode without the amazing team at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History. Literally, I wouldn't be half the palaeontologist I am today had I not moved across the country to work there all those years ago. There's a few folks at Age of Dinosaurs that really showed me the ropes and giving me the opportunity to work on this incredible fossil, of course the Elliott family, David, Judy, Bob and Harry, for years they've helped work with palaeos and allowed them access to their sheep and cattle station. Special thanks to my mentor Trish 'Tricky' Sloan, Steve Poropat, George Sinapius, 'Rumbo' AKA Steven Rumbold and the rest of the AAOD team.
Also it's worth noting that without Age of Dinosaurs the papers on Ferrodraco would be behind a pay wall, so thanks to AAOD for paying the publication fees, keeping these papers freely available and in open access. You can look them up online, just type Ferrodraco into either Google or Google Scholar and there'll be there somewhere.
Thank you to our incredible team of volunteers, as I mentioned before, our dig crews mainly consist of citizen scientists, they do a lot of the hard work whilst we're off collecting data and doing other bits and pieces. Shout outs to Milton, Pam, Cherl, Mary, Jan, Jo, Di, and everyone else who helped dig at the pterosaur site and wash the matrix we dug up at site using the super siever.
Thanks to Swinburne University of Technology and Curtin University for having me as a PhD student and supporting my research, I wouldn't have been able to get it together without these two organisations. Thanks to the the Australian Research Training Program, the fee offset scholarship I received has made my life so much easier.
Thanks as always to César for editing the show, making me sound smarter than I actually am and Hello Kelly for the twinkly nostalgia soaked tunes. If you like the theme song for Pals in Palaeo there's a mighty high chance that you'll LOVE their song Sweet Nostalgia, which you can find on their website and on Spotify. Also just want to thank the lead singer of Hello Kelly, Francy for all our other tunes
Hope you enjoyed this one, and I hope I've convinced you to join team pterosaur. If you have questions about Ferrodraco, or you want to know what it's like to run a fossil dig you can ask me on Instagram I'm @Pals in Palaeo. Thanks so much for listening, until next time, keep your head in the clouds and your hands in the dirts
The Pals in Palaeo Cover Art
Jenny Zhao Design @jennyzdesign
Crumpet Club House@crumpetclubhouse
The Pals in Palaeo Theme Music
Hello Kelly @hellokellymusic
Jean-César Peuchmarin @cesar_on_safari