Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Skimming with Semirostra

It's been a year since the clade Volantia was established, uniting all flying organisms as a monophyletic group. Hot off the presses today, the next stage in advancing research of this newly recognized clade has been unveiled.

Traditionally, birds, bats, pterosaurs, insects, and planes have been considered the only groups capable of powered flight, and it was these groups that were analyzed in the original. However, it is being increasingly recognized that other groups, such as rockets, hot air balloons, and squid should all be considered part of this roster. The new study includes these taxa and more in the most comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of the clade yet. (Sample size of two? What does that mean?)

The results confirm that the jet/heat-propelled groups are highly specialized volantians and, in fact, are each others' closest relatives. In addition, taxa such as dragons, griffons, and pegasi, long thought to be entirely mythical, were also included on the basis of oft-maligned but truly overwhelming evidence such as anecdotal accounts on Ask.com.

One of the most common criticisms leveled at the original paper coining Volantia was its choice of unicorns as the outgroup in its phylogenetic analysis, with good reason. There is a wealth of evidence supporting a flying ancestry for unicorns, including widely publicized developmental data showing that wing-making genes can be activated even in their postnatal development. What's more, fossil evidence now exists to further corroborate these conclusions, for last year also saw the announcement of the pegacorn (rumored name "Pegasoceras wimmeri"), known from a well-preserved fossil representing what appears to be a four-winged stem member of the clade including both unicorns and pegasi. It was widely dubbed in the press the Pony from Hell, because ponies don't receive enough attention and a four-winged pseudo-horse is not spectacular enough of a find to attract the media on its own merits. The new analysis takes the opportunity to amend the oversight of the original, deeming unicorns secondarily flightless volantians.

Most intriguing of all, however, may be the discovery of another clade of secondarily flightless volantians, hitherto unrecognized. Not only secondarily flightless, in fact, but also secondarily aquatic. This is the clade Halirostra, which includes Semirostrum ceruttii (initially thought to have been a porpoise) and the Hemiramphidae or halfbeaks (long thought to be actinopterygians). Some species of halfbeaks are still able to glide over the surface of the water, further testament to their flying ancestry.

Phylogeny of Volantia, from Troll, 2014. The blue dot marks the newly-coined clade Halirostra and the red marks Semirostra.

What were the flighted ancestors of halirostrans like? An extant taxon may provide some clues. The Rynchopidae or skimmers have long been thought to be birds, but the new analysis demonstrates conclusively that this is not the case. In reality, they share just one several important features with the halirostrans, such as a prognathous mandible. Besides, their slit pupils should have been a dead giveaway that skimmers are not really birds.

Together with pterosaurs, skimmers and halirostrans are found to form the clade Semirostra. This has interesting implications for the paleobiology of the extinct members of this group. Skimmers are famous for their distinctive skim-feeding method of foraging. As they are the only extant proxies of extinct semirostrans*, perhaps it's time to take another look at the all too hastily discredited notion that pterosaurs also skim fed. Using the method Use Photoshop and Look Really Hard (UPALRH), pioneered by Dave Preter, and a healthy dose of SRC, the researcher behind today's study was able to see previously unknown features in pterosaur fossils, including eyeballs, elongated mandibles, speech bubbles, and the original surface of the water in which the pterosaurs had been skimming in prior to their death, providing support for the much cooler idea that pterosaurs could skim feed, no matter what those dang clueless biomechanists say.

*Halfbeaks don't count, they are faaaaaaaar too different.

Reinterpretation of a specimen of the pterosaur Darwinopterus modularis after applying UPALRH and SRC, from Troll, 2014 and modified from a photograph by Didier Descouens, licensed.

And Semirostrum? Why not?

Restoration of Semirostrum ceruttii depicting it utilizing the foraging method suggested in Troll, 2014.

We may be momentarily astonished by these revelations, but in hindsight they are incredibly conspicuous. It is a wonder that professional scientists have not yet put together the true relationship between pterosaurs and skimmers when it could easily be proven by taking quotes from abstracts of scientific articles and Wikipedia out of context. Once again, this demonstrates that the scientific community are an incompetent lot who have to be given reality checks by untrained amateurs that hold the true keys to the ultimate truth, because of Galileo and some crap. (Who was Galileo anyway?)

Special thanks to Thomas Holtz and Logan Orlowski for assisting me in the coverage of this revolutionary new paper.

Claw, A. and I.M.A. Troll. 2011. A new and extremely inaccurate method for inferring the integument of extinct maniraptors. Journal That Sometimes Accepts Silly Things 1: 1-9. doi: WTF/???sdflkjsdf

Humphries, S., R.H.C. Bonser, M.P. Witton, and D.M. Martill. 2007. Did pterosaurs feed by skimming? Physical modelling and anatomical evaluation of an unusual feeding method. PLoS Biology 5(8): e204. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050204

Larson, M.A. 2013. Magical mystery cure. The Hub 4: 13. doi: 413/mlp.fim.90123

Muramatsu, K., J. Yamamoto, T. Abe, K. Sekiguchi, N. Hoshi, and Y. Sakurai. 2013. Oceanic squid do fly. Marine Biology 160: 1171-1175. doi: 10.1007/s00227-013-2169-9

Orlowski, L. 2013. Fossil evidence for a secondarily flightless ancestry in unicorns. The Proboscipoda Annual Conference Abstracts 1A: 7-12. doi: 42.1007/666.x4351

Preter, D. 2000. Look at all this kool stuff. Empire of King Preter 1: 1-9. doi: 9999.dsf91.999

Racicot, R., T. Deméré, B. Beatty, and R. Boessenecker. 2014. Unique feeding morphology in a new prognathus extinct porpoise from the Pliocene of California. Current Biology 24: 774–779. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.02.031

Troll, I.M.A. 2013. A four-winged configuration for basal birds: implications for the Single Origin of Flight (SOF) Hypothesis. Journal of Random Crap 1: 1-5. doi: 42.1007/s42336.012.0910.7

Troll, I.M.A. 2014. Skimming, fire-breathing, and secondary flightlessness: a comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of the newly recognized clade Volantia shows hitherto unknown diversity. Journal of Random Crap 2: 1-5. doi: 42.1007/s42336.013.0910.7


  1. You're especially welcome.

    One minor nitpick: "Pegasoceras wimmeri" hasn't been published yet. When it does, it will certainly have a different species name.

    1. I have emended the post accordingly.

  2. Once again, I think this hypothesis could be taken farther. You have turtles as an outgroup, but their fins look an awful lot like wings. And they have beaks. As noted in the below link, they share some obviously inherited traits with avians:

    Consider also the many well-documented accounts of flying primates (e.g. Baum 1900).

    1. I am not responsible for the study; I only report the results. However, your points are well made.

      At risk of being scooped, I have a sneaking suspicion that turtles truly do represent the ancestral form of Volantia, their aquaflying being precursors to aerial flight and their similarities to birds being volantian symplesiomorphies, but this awaits further testing. Interestingly, Lamarck suggested in the 1800s that turtles were the ancestors of birds. This has not been supported by the rest of the scientific community, but the rise of the Volantia hypothesis would suggest that it should be given more attention.

    2. Come to think of it, some plants (like the maple tree) have gliding seeds. Could that be a recapitulation of volantian phylogeny?

    3. Brilliant thought. I will have to ask Troll if he plans to investigate that possibility.