Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reconstructing Gwawinapterus

Yesterday I talked about both how I came to work on what would become Gwawinapterus, and what’s actually interesting about that scrappy little jaw. Today I wanted to talk a little bit about something a little less technical – the ‘reconstruction’ of Gwawinapterus that I created for the media release.

I put reconstruction in quotation marks because I’m working with just the front of the snout – the tip of the iceberg, really – and recreating a whole animal, so there’s going to be an awful lot of guessing involved. However, there may be a bit less guesswork than you might expect.

So far, istiodactylids seem to me to be a fairly morphologically conservative group, and by that I mean that most of the species look fairly similar to each other. None are particularly large or small, and their cranial and postcranial anatomy is pretty consistent. So, the overall shape of Gwawinapterus is probably not too far off – it probably had a long, low skull and may not have had any sort of crest or ornamentation like a lot of other pterosaurs. Like other pterodactyloid pterosaurs, it would have had a short tail, long neck, and long metacarpals, and may have walked with an erect, parasaggital gait. One somewhat notable difference between Gwawinapterus and other istiodactylids is that Gwawinapterus would have had a comparatively deeper snout, and it may turn out it had a less elongate skull compared to other istiodactylids as well. Pterosaurs had a fuzzy covering somewhat like mammalian hair (they’re called pycnofibres!) and I’ve given Gwawinapterus a slightly shaggy neck reminiscent of ravens.

(Thanks yet again, Wikipedia.)

Based on comments on some of the news articles that came out yesterday, people seem to either love or hate the colour pattern I chose. That’s ok. The pattern I chose was inspired by the art of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who live on the northern end of Vancouver Island. The name Gwawinapterus is partly derived from the Kwakwala word for Raven, Gwa’wina, because the skull of many istiodactylids remind me of Raven masks.

(This one's from me this time, from a visit to the MOA at UBC.)

If you’ve visited Vancouver’s Stanley Park and seen the totem poles or visited the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (which you must if you are in the area!), you’ll have seen a lot of the Kwakwaka’wakw style of art. (There are many first nations tribes in British Columbia and each have their own distinct language and artistic style, so I think it’s important not to lump them all into ‘northwest coast art’.) This art is highly stylized and so by default the reconstruction of Gwawinapterus is quite stylized. Although I’m not so bad at drawing in a sort of sparse, graphic-designy style, I don’t have the skill or time to do full shaded renderings – I’ve got nothing on artists John Conway or Mark Witton or my friend and colleague Lida Xing. But stylized I can do, so stylized pterosaur you get!

Despite the stylized nature of my Gwawinapterus drawing, there are certainly some elements of the reconstruction that are somewhat grounded in real life. Lots of animals have black and white counter-shading and we’ve seen earlier this year that a reddish-brown pigment was found in at least some feathered dinosaurs. Black markings around the eyes are found in lots of mammals (badgers, raccoons, and cheetahs come to mind) and birds (Atlantic puffin). The ‘salmon egg’ ovals down the back and legs might be a bit off, but lots of animals certainly have spots and splotches.


And now, before this post gets too long, I shall direct you to further reading if you’re interested in some of the less pterosaury points touched on in this post:

The UBC Museum of Anthropology: You could literally spend hours browsing their entire collection – you can narrow your search by choosing People --> North America, and then Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingit, or Tsimshian, to name just a few.

The Raven Steals the Light: Raven is perhaps the most popular recurring character in many northwest coast stories. This book, by Robert Bringhurst and noted artist Bill Reid, introduces several Haida stories featuring Raven and other colourful characters.


  1. I liked the reconstruction anyway just thinking it was quite a cool colour combination. It was only later I realised it was obviously supposed to be related to native art and then I liked it even more. This is genuinely cool and a clever tribute to the local culture. I'd love to see a series of these with a Quetzalcoatlus done in local colours etc.

  2. Thanks for posting this! Perfectly addresses what I talked about in the email I sent. I agree with Dave, the native art influence is absolutely cool. and I really appreciate the links to the influences you drew upon. Great stuff!