National Geographic : 2017 Nov
weirdest wonders on wings 79 former diversity. There’s the widemouthed, frog-faced pterosaur named Jeholopterus (also known as the “Cookie Monster” pterosaur), thought to have snapped up dragonflies and oth- er insects in ancient forests. There’s Ikrandraco, named for the aerial mountain banshees in the movie Avatar and thought to have flown low over the water, using a sort of keel on its lower jaw to skim beneath the surface for fish. There’s Dsungaripterus, from northwestern China, with a long, thin, upturned beak for probing for shell- fish and other invertebrates, to be crushed up by its knobby teeth. The sight of so many weapons, so much hunger, such vibrant life now frozen in stone is unmistakably poignant. Something about ptero- saurs ultimately made them vulnerable. Maybe the food they depended on vanished during the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago. Or maybe their evolution to increasingly gigantic size left the likes of Quetzalcoatlus vulnerable, whereas some small- er birds could hide out during the catastrophe. For pterosaurs, in any case, it was the end-time. But as you study their beautifully preserved remains in a museum, something peculiar hap- pens: You start to wonder if Nemicolopterus is sidling off the edge of its piece of shale in pur- suit of missing body parts. You wonder if you just saw the toe bones of Kunpengopterus, dark brown and standing out on the rock surface like embossed lettering, begin to twitch. By a trick of the eye or the mind, it can seem—at least momentarily—as if the pterosaurs, this bizarre and bountiful expression of the great life force of the planet Earth, might yet rise up from the rock and again take wing. j An ordinary guy with an extraordinary eye for fossils, Ray Stanford has found hundreds of stone slabs bearing the tracks of pterosaurs and other extinct animals near his home in the Washington, D.C., area. Writer Richard Conniff’s most recent book is House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. Photographer Robert Clark’s latest book is Evolution: A Visual Record.