Rachel Belben, PhD student

The Function, Anatomy, and Evolutionary History of the Pterosaur Bauplan – a Taphonomic Approach

Contact DetailsRachel Belben

Project Overview

This project uses taphonomy, in completeness, articulation and geometry metrics, to test competing hypotheses on the anatomical structures, or modules, of pterosaurs, Mesozoic flying reptiles. The structural modules of pterosaurs, defined here as anatomical units created by the physical connection of limbs through wing membrane, are key to understanding and interpreting fossil evidence with regards to locomotion and ecology, and ultimately macroevolution. Current ideas on the structural modularity of pterosaurs, however, remain largely speculative, despite such assumptions often being used in conclusions on morphology, locomotion, and other aspects of pterosaur palaeobiology, both explicitly or implicitly.

Pterosaurs possessed a membranous flight surface supported by the forelimbs (and potentially the hind limbs), and at least some taxa possessed an additional membrane spanning the hind limbs. The modularity of pterosaurs can be defined as whether the membrane connected all limbs (creating one module, as one continuous flight surface), or connected only fore and hind limb on each side (two modules), or only the hind limbs and leaving the forelimbs free (three modules), or connecting none of the limbs (four modules). The methods will be tested against fossil remains of birds and bats, for which the anatomy, structural modularity (four and one modules, respectively), and ecologies are well known. This allows the assessment of the reliability and robustness of this methodology of using taphonomy to explore modularity within pterosaurs.

Analysis of and determining modularity across Pterosauria can then be used to interpret ecology of pterosaurs, including how the module variation may have affected terrestrial and aerial locomotion. In addition, mapping modularity onto a phylogenetic framework can provide insight into the evolutionary patterns of the clade.

Research Theme

Evolution and Past Environments

Research Questions

  • Is the hypothesis that basal non-pterodactyloids had fundamental differences to their flight modules to derived pterodactyloids supported by taphonomic evidence?
  • What ecological and evolutionary implications does module number have across the phylogeny?
  • Can this taphonomic approach be applied to other taxa?


Belben, R. A., Underwood, C. J., Johanson, Z., & Twitchett, R. J. (2017). Ecological impact of the end-Cretaceous extinction on lamniform sharks. PloS one, 12(6), e0178294.

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