Quetzalcoatlus is an azhdarchid pterosaur, an enormous Cretaceous-era animal with a 10-meter wingspan. And for decades, most people believed it looked like this blisteringly Satanic creature — despite all evidence to the contrary. How did so many people get it so wrong?
Illustration by Richard Orr
Over at Tetrapod Zoology, paleontologist Darren Naish gets to the bottom of the demonic Quetzalcoatlus mystery.
By now, it’s reasonably well known to interested people what azhdarchid pterosaurs looked like when alive. The answer: sort of like a cross between a giraffe and a stork, though with all of this being over-ridden by uniquely pterosaurian weirdness; membranous wings supported by giant fingers, a large cranial crest, plantigrade feet, and so on.
Here's a picture of an azhdarchid pterosaur, using the latest scientific evidence for what they look like.
Illustration by Mark Witton
But of course this isn't what you typically see in drawings of these admittedly fearsome beasts. Instead, you see what Naish calls a paleoart meme — an artistic misrepresentation of an ancient animal, that gets perpetuated across many other artworks until everybody thinks they know what the damn thing looks like. Except they don't. Case in point: for a long time, artists have drawn azhdarchid pterosaurs to look like leather-winged demons of the night.
Naish gives us the lowdown on why:
Quetzalcoatlus was depicted as a most peculiar creature in a few books from the 1970s and 80s . . . it was depicted as a short-headed pterosaur with a bony lump on the back of its head, a very flexible neck, and pointed, toothy jaws. Imagined like this, it really looks like some sort of horrific demon. Richard Orr’s painting – shown at the top of this article – always makes me think of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s scenes of Hell. Truly, it’s a horrific, terrifying scene . . . Orr’s painting comes from a book written by the unique Dougal Dixon* (Prehistoric Reptiles), and originally published in 1984 (I only have a 1993 edition). It’s obvious from many of the scenes included in the book that Orr had been heavily inspired by Giovanni Caselli’s reconstructions from L. B. Halstead’s The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs, first published in 1975. Sure enough, if we look at Halstead’s book, we see another version of the same creature. Caselli didn’t show the animals in as much detail as Orr or Michel did, but we again see a comparatively short skull and a blunt, knob-like crest at the back of the head. The animals are also shown as being red, just like Orr’s creature. As mentioned above, this is a classic feature of the palaeoart meme: the creatures are given the same livery, just because. Anyway, Caselli’s version came first – but where did it come from?
The answer will take you down an insane artistic rabbit hole, including fake drawings of this creature's skeleton and artist after artist basing their drawings on previous incorrect work.
Read Naish's entire article to get the full crazy tale of how this paleoart meme spread everywhere in the mid-twentieth century.