Friday 29 April 2016

The lives and times of flying reptiles as told by the fossil record, part 2: Rhamphorhynchus muensteri

Juvenile, subadult and a big, old adult Rhamphorhynchus muensteri forage in a Jurassic lagoon. We know more about the position of this pterosaur in Mesozoic food webs than any other thanks to its excellent fossil record. The floating posture here is based on data from Hone and Henderson (2014).
The Late Jurassic, Solnhofen Formation pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus muensteri is an exceptional flying reptile. We tend to overlook it a bit now - it's been known for almost two centuries, which is long enough to temper enthusiasm for any fossil species - but it's a remarkable animal for a number of reasons. Far from a typical example of the rhamphorhynchid lineage, it's the rhamphorhynchiest of all pterosaurs with a jaw full of large, conical teeth, elongate extensions to its jaw tips, exceptionally long and slender wings, delicate hindlimbs and walking digits, and a long, stiff tail famously adorned with a diamond or triangular shaped vane*. It also arguably has the best fossil record of any pterosaur. It's known from over 100 specimens, many of them being complete, articulated skeletons with at least some three-dimensionality, as well as providing excellent soft-tissues remains. Excepting embryos, we have complete growth series from tiny juveniles to chunky adults with 1.8 m wingspans, and its preservation is such that fine details of bones can be gleaned through careful mechanical or acid preparation. Its osteology is subsequently better known that any other pterosaur. The Cretaceous pterodactyloid Pteranodon might be known from more fossils (>1400), but these flattened, disarticulated remains are nowhere close to the fossil quality of Rhamphorhynchus.

*We see these restored for numerous long tailed pterosaurs, but only Rhamphorhynchus is known, for fact, to have this 'classic' tail vane morphology.

On top of all this, Rhamphorhynchus also provides greater direct insight into its daily behaviour than any other pterosaur. Multiple examples of gut content, coprolites, predator-prey associations and its inclusion in a ball of vomited spittle provide us with insight into what this pterosaur ate, where it was feeding, and what was eating it. In this, a second and concluding foray into the pterosaur palaeoecological record (click here for the first), let's take a look into how this animal slotted into Jurassic ecosystems.

Snap my fish up

What did Rhamphorhynchus eat? At least three specimens suggest that it foraged for fish of various sizes. The most famous example of such a fossil is sometimes referred to as the 'greedy guts Rhamphorhynchus', an animal which swallowed a fish almost as long as its own torso. This specimen represents a smallish individual, first described by Wellnhofer (1975), with a partly articulated, partly digested fish fossil preserved inside the posterior 60% of the rib cage (below). The orientation of the fish tail fin suggests the fish was swallowed head first, and we have to assume that some major distension of the throat occurred when doing so. That pterosaurs were capable of doing this isn't that surprising considering that extant pterosaur relatives - crocodylians and birds - have mobile throats which aid swallowing of big food items. The relative proportions of these gut contents suggests this animal must've bolted its food like these modern archosaurs, a behaviour rare among mammals but known to occur in at least one large, yellow, bipedal primate. This specimen also presents several elongate elements which defy easy explanation: they're suggested as other food items or even bits of preserved gut tissue by various authors (dark grey in the line drawing below).

The fossil, interpretive drawing, and restored reality of Jurassic table manners. Disgraceful.
Line drawing after Wellnhofer (1975).
Fish dietary remains have been reported from two other Rhamphorhynchus specimens. A complete, relatively small fish has been found in the throat region of one specimen, also swallowed head-first, and various scales and bones occur within the rib cage of another (Frey and Tischlinger 2012; Hone et al. 2013). These three specimens do not represent the limit of Rhamphorhynchus gut content, but they are the limit of identifiable examples: some specimens are known with indeterminate bones or massive, disorganised crystal growths in their stomach regions which represent poorly preserved gut matter, but they aren't of much use to us here.

The one, the only, pterosaur coprolite

Of the many questions that keep pterosaur experts up at night - what are they related to? how did they work as functional organisms? how are they related to each other? - none has been greater than what their poop was like. Expelled waste is a common form of fossils in some localities, but remained entirely elusive for flying reptiles until last year when Dave Hone and colleagues (2015) identified the first pterosaur coprolite dropping out of a complete Rhamphorhynchus specimen. Finally, pterosaur workers can sleep easy.

Rhamphorhynchus muensteri specimen with coprolite (cp). From Hone et al. (2015).
The compact shape of these remains and their proximity to the pelvic region suggest that they were expelled from the pterosaur shortly after it settled on the seabed of the Solnhofen lagoon. Some of the coprolite content is pretty indistinct, but one portion preserves thousands of tiny spines, likely indigestible bits of a recent meal. Exactly what they are is difficult to say - you can get a good look here if you'd like to figure them out - but a number of alternatives were considered by Hone et al. (2015). The tentative, albeit still problematic, suggestion is that they represent cephalopod hooklets. This situation is somewhat frustrating, as this coprolite shows that Rhamphorhynchus was not just a fish eater, but doesn't really tell us much else. Still, now that we know what we're looking for, perhaps more pterosaur coprolites might start coming to light.

Fossilised food chains

Several Rhamphorhynchus specimens reveal it was prey to other Jurassic animals. Among the least commonly discussed is a small pellet produced by something like a fish or crocodylomorph which contains several Rhamphorhynchus wing bones (Schweigert et al. 2001). This is a rare example of Rhamphorhynchus from the Nusplingen Limestone, a unit lithologically similar to Solnhofen but slightly older. As is so often the case with such fossils, the identity of the pellet maker remains elusive. My own suspicions are of a piscine origin, as modern crocodylians don't tend to spit out bones (they digest them, only regurgitating hair, feathers and other keratinous tissues that are difficult to break down). That may not have been true for fossil crocs, of course.

Rhamphorhynchus vs. Aspidorhynchus. I guess we should call this one a draw? From Frey and Tischlinger (2012).

Among the most remarkable Rhamphorhynchus fossils are five instances where it is preserved alongside the predatory fish Aspidorhynchus acutirostris, a long-bodied species that is often much larger than its Rhamphorhynhus prey (Frey and Tischlinger 2012; Weber 2013). These fossils are palaeoecologically notable for three reasons. Firstly, large Solnhofen vertebrates are hardly ever associated, and yet we have five instances of this same pterosaur and fish species being found in touching, or near touching, proximity. Secondly, all five are exquisitely preserved - one example includes a 'mummified' pterosaur with wing membranes, and all are completely articulated. Thirdly, the Rhamphorhynchus are invariably positioned around the skull of the fish, as if a specific, repeated behaviour saw these animals preserved together. These particulars make chance association of these animals unlikely and imply Aspidorhynchus sought out Rhamphorhynchus as food, probably hunting live specimens rather than scavenging floating corpses (as indicated by the excellent preservation of the individual pterosaurs). Frey and Tischlinger (2012) provide a plausible scenario for the deaths of these animals: they reason the Aspidorhynchus tackled prey that became entangled in their jaws before accidentally entering the toxic bottom waters of the Solnhofen waterways. In these anoxic depths the tangled pair would die pretty quickly (if the pterosaur wasn't already dead, of course), leaving us with perfectly preserved bungled predatory acts. The icing on the cake of these specimens is that one of these Rhamphorhynchus specimens has already been mentioned here - that individual with a fish in its throat (Frey and Tischlinger 2012). In this specimen at least, we can assume the pterosaur ate a fish shortly before being attacked itself: a rare instance of a fossil food chain.

The bigger picture of Rhamphorhynchus palaeoecology

Collectively, we have 10 specimens of Rhamphorhynchus telling us something about its position in Mesozoic food webs. That's not bad going for a pterosaur, a famously rare type of fossil, and is actually a pretty good palaeoecological record for any fossil vertebrate. 10 specimens is not enough to tell us everything about the lifestyle of a fossil animal, but does allow us to paint a general picture. They show us that Rhamphorhynchus was adapted to foraging on pelagic prey - often small, probably live fish - and that it must have spent a good amount of time in or around water, as it was clearly an attractant to aquatic predators. These specimens gel neatly with general models of Rhamphorhynchus lifestyle interpreted from their functional anatomy. It's generally thought that Rhamphorhynchus was adapted for life along shorelines - basically a Mesozoic gull. It's not uncommon to be suspicious of such claims nowadays, it being realised that the 'Mesozoic seabird equivalent' almost became a trope, or at least a tremendous over-generalisation, of pre-21st century pterosaur science. But in this case, a gull-like lifestyle is a cogent hypothesis based on studies of wing shape, flight style, tooth and jaw apparatus, and limb function (e.g. Wellnhofer 1975; Hazlehurst and Rayner 1992; Witton 2008, 2015; Ösi 2011). Perhaps research on Rhamphorhynchus was involved in creating the stereotype of pterosaurs as Mesozoic seabirds, but we should not regard it as a victims of this stereotyping itself.

But we should ask ourselves why Rhamphorhynchus palaeoecology is comparably well-represented in the fossil record. It might be something as simple as preservational conditions, but there are plenty of pterosaur Lagerstätten, some of them containing close relatives of Rhamphorhynchus in reasonable abundance, which provide no information about dietary preferences or interactions with predatory species. Is there something intrinsic to Rhamphorhynchus which makes it special? I find several reasons to wonder if Rhamphorhynchus was an atypically aquatic species, not only flying and feeding above water but actually routinely entering it. Firstly, Rhamphorhynchus has a hatchet-shaped deltopectoral crest (the process on the humerus which anchors the flight muscles), a small (or at least narrow) torso and short legs: these are features which Habib and Cunningham (2010) link to routine and efficient aquatic takeoff. Secondly, tests of pterosaur swimming suggest that Rhamphorhynchus had a pretty stable floating posture - not something that can be said for all pterosaurs (Hone and Henderson 2014). Thirdly, it also has comparably large but delicately constructed feet, which might suit paddling, as well as a slender set of forelimb bones (Witton 2015) which recall the streamlined arm bones of swimming and diving birds (Habib and Ruff 2008). Prolonged bouts of swimming might also account for its general abundance, excellent preservation and all-round good fossil record: being immersed in water puts it a step closer to being preserved than other, less aquatic species. Who knows: perhaps it even dived into Solnhofen's toxic bottom waters on occasion, explaining why so many specimens are excellently preserved? Hmmm.... perhaps this warrants further investigation.

Coming soon: could dinosaurs - gasp - lie down on their sides? My take on the greatest of palaeoart debates.

Rhamphorhynchus is supported by fish; this blog is supported by Patreon

The paintings and words featured here are sponsored by the finest human beings on the planet, those folks who support me at Patreon. Backing my blog for as little as $1 a month helps me churn out researched and detailed articles and paintings to accompany them, and in return you get access to bonus blog content: additional commentary, in-progress views and high-resolution artwork, and even free prints. Accompanying this post, we're going to look at the bigger picture of pterosaur palaeoecology: azhdarchids and Rhamphorhynchus are just two lineages with palaeoecological records - what about the rest of Pterosauria? Sign up to Patreon to join that discussion!


  • Frey, E., & Tischlinger, H. (2012). The Late Jurassic pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus, a frequent victim of the ganoid fish Aspidorhynchus?. PloS one, 7(3), e31945.
  • Habib, M. & Cunningham, J. 2010. Capacity for Water Launch in Anhanguera and Quetzalcoatlus. Acta Geoscientica Sinica. 31, 24-25
  • Habib, M. B., & Ruff, C. B. (2008). The effects of locomotion on the structural characteristics of avian limb bones. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 153(3), 601-624.
  • Hazlehurst, G. A., & Rayner, J. M. (1992). Flight characteristics of Triassic and Jurassic Pterosauria: an appraisal based on wing shape. Paleobiology, 18(04), 447-463.
  • Hone, D. W., Habib, M. B., & Lamanna, M. C. (2013). An annotated and illustrated catalogue of Solnhofen (Upper Jurassic, Germany) pterosaur specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Annals of Carnegie Museum, 82(2), 165-191.
  • Hone, D. W., & Henderson, D. M. (2014). The posture of floating pterosaurs: Ecological implications for inhabiting marine and freshwater habitats. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 394, 89-98.
  • Hone, D., Henderson, D. M., Therrien, F., & Habib, M. B. (2015). A specimen of Rhamphorhynchus with soft tissue preservation, stomach contents and a putative coprolite. PeerJ, 3, e1191.
  • Ősi, A. (2011). Feeding‐related characters in basal pterosaurs: implications for jaw mechanism, dental function and diet. Lethaia, 44(2), 136-152.
  • Schweigert, G., Dietl, G. & Wild, R. (2001). Miscellanea aus dem Nusplinger Plattenkalk (Ober-Kimmeridgium, Schwäbische Alb) 3. Ein Speiballen mit Flugsaurierresten. Jahresberichte und Mitteilungen des Oberrheinischen Geologischen Vereines, 83, 357-364
  • Weber, F. (2013). Paléoécologie des ptérosaures 3. Les reptiles volants de Solnhofen, Allemagne. Fossiles. 14. 50-59.
  • Wellnhofer, P. 1975. Die Rhamphorhynchoidea (Pterosauria) der Oberjura-Plattenkalke Süddeutschlands. Palaeontoographica A, 149, 1-30.
  • Witton, M. P. (2008). A new approach to determining pterosaur body mass and its implications for pterosaur flight. Zitteliana, 28, 143-159. 
  • Witton, M. P. (2015). Were early pterosaurs inept terrestrial locomotors? PeerJ, 3, e1018.

Monday 4 April 2016

Why Protoceratops almost certainly wasn't the inspiration for the griffin legend

Protoceratops, the Late Cretaceous horned dinosaur widely suggested as being the inspiration for the griffin myth. This image shows the lesser seen P. hellenikorhinus, a larger, more ornamented species of Protoceratops than the familiar P. andrewsi.
One thing that everyone knows about the mid-sized, Late Cretaceous Asian horned dinosaur Protoceratops is that it's thought to be a fossil with historic, mythological significance. Specifically, it's said to be the origin for the griffin, the lion-bodied, bird-headed chimera that has appeared in art and folklore for thousands of years. You could be forgiven for thinking that this idea is quite old and established because it's mentioned frequently in books, TV shows, and online articles, but it's actually a relatively modern invention. What I'll be calling the 'Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis' was first proposed by Adrienne Mayor and Michael Heaney in the 1993 Folklore paper "Griffins and Arimaspeans" and then developed by Mayor across two editions of the book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (2001, 2011). These authors were not the first to suggest that the griffin had a basis in ancient interpretations of fossil animals (Mayor and Heaney 1993), but they presented the first argument linking griffins to horned dinosaurs as well as a suite of historic evidence supporting their interpretation. The idea has been praised by several palaeontologists and is celebrated as one of the superior accounts of fossils influencing ancient mythology.

Bird-griffin statue, 7th century BCE. Was Protoceratops the inspiration for this creation? From Mayor and Heaney (1993).
The basic premise of the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is straightforward. Tales of Ancient Greek explorers of the 7th century BCE (but first written about in the fifth century BCE) include discussion of vicious, beaked, gold-guarding quadrupedal animals living in deserts to the northeast of Greece. These stories are said to have originated with the Scythians, nomadic peoples who mined gold from central Asia from localities close to the bonebeds of Protoceratops in Mongolia and China. It is reasoned that Scythian nomads saw the weathering skeletons of Protoceratops as they prospected for gold and told others of their existence. The Greeks interpreted these as real-life versions of the griffins they knew from history and the mythology as we know it was born. The hypothesis argues that specific aspects of griffin anatomy were based directly on these accounts of Protoceratops: the beaked jaws and quadrupedality are obvious, but griffin wings are argued to be Protoceratops neck frills or shoulder blades, taloned hands are thought to reflect Protoceratops claws and so on. As the Greeks continued to hear about these animals, eventually from direct trade with the Scythians in the 7th century BCE, their interest in griffins grew so that they became familiar components of Greek culture. For hundreds of years Greek scholars and artists would continue adding to griffin lore, always referencing the same touchstones of desert settings, powerful, beaked quadrupedal animals, and gold guarding. Their depictions and stories would be passed through to medieval times and, ultimately, the modern day.

I recently became genuinely interested in this interpretation as part of research into the earliest accounts of palaeoart. If griffin art is indeed of horned dinosaur origin, it might qualify as some of the oldest on record. But reading about the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis (in Mayor and Heaney 1993; Mayer 2011) did not deliver the proverbial 'nugget of truth' behind the griffin myth I expected based on its fame. My impression was that evidence cited for this hypothesis was generalised to account for as much griffin lore as possible, that several major, obvious questions remained unanswered, and that there was not any attempt to refute other, non-fossiliferous takes on griffin origins. Digging into the primary literature on griffin iconography seemed to confirm my concerns, suggesting that the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is unfavourable among archaeologists (e.g. Frankfort 1937; Goldman 1960; Wyatt 2009; Tartaron 2014). Moreover, there are far more parsimonious and well substantiated takes on these creatures which do not rely on fossil data. In the interests of providing a counter-argument to all the 'pro'-Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis media out there, I'm sharing the products of my research here.

The griffin timeline

Perhaps the largest issue with the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is the fact it largely ignores griffin lore before the 7th century BCE. Griffin iconography extends deep into human history with one of their best early appearances dating to 4th millennium BCE Susa - an ancient city in what is now Iran (below, Frankfort 1937). Similarly aged or older artefacts from Egypt also show griffin-like forms (Wyatt 2009), and by the 3rd millennium BCE griffins were a regular component of art in many Near Eastern countries. The role of griffins in these communities remains a matter of controversy because we have little or no written explanation of their significance. Nevertheless, they are abundant enough to suggest some importance in these cultures, and modern scholars have attempted to interpret griffin imagery based on religious and cultural practises of these times (e.g. Wyatt 2009).

Line drawing of perhaps the oldest known image of a griffin, from Susa, 4th millennium BCE. From Frankfort (1937).
As noted above, the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis relies on Greek and central Asian evidence no older than the seventh century BCE, picking up the griffin story thousands of years after it begins in the Near East. How does it account for this older period of griffin history? Mayor and Heaney (1993) simply write "...we have no way of knowing what kind of folklore, if any, was attached to these creatures" (p. 41), and a similarly brief discussion is presented by Mayor (2011). What we need to valiate the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is a link between Protoceratops and the oldest Near Eastern griffin art, especially if these fossils were meant to have directly inspired griffin appearance. To my knowledge, no such link has been presented, and this is a problem: whether we understand them fully or not, these early griffins still provide basic information on where and when griffins entered ancient cultures, and they must therefore be the focus of any attempt to explain griffin origins. As it is, the fact that Near Eastern griffins substantially pre-date any from central Asia is a clear argument against the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis.

Taking this point further, overlooking the early history of griffin art also means that the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis does not engage with current, mainstream interpretations of the spread of griffin culture to Ancient Greece. Griffins are thought to have become popular in Greece during the 'Orientalizing Period', a cultural event occurring around the 7th century BCE when Greek art, technology and literature became heavily influenced by Near Eastern civilisations (Tartaron 2014). Put simply, the uptake of griffins into Greek culture coincides exactly with their sudden interest in the guys who'd been drawing and sculpting griffins for thousands of years. It's easy to understand why this is the preferred explanation for the rise of Grecian interest in griffin imagery. It involves the civilisations known to have depicted these animals before anyone else, fits the dates attributed to Greek and Near Eastern griffin art perfectly, and is easily explained as part of a well-established period of cultural exchange between these peoples. To accept the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis we need to explain why it better accounts for griffin history than the consensus view. The lack of attempt to do this by proponents of the Protoceratops-griffin link is a weakness in their argument. 

Griffin appearance, variation and the 'need' for exotic fossil anatomy

The Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis also presents a simplified interpretation of griffin iconography. Numerous variants on griffins are found in the ancient world, reflecting differences in anatomy, pose and behaviour. The 'bird-griffin' - the winged lion with an avian head (see images, above and below)- is the type Protoceratops is thought to have inspired, but is just one of many griffin chimeras identified by researchers. Reflecting taxonomy on real animals, the identification of distinctive griffin 'species' varies between researchers, but they are generally thought to include wingless sphinxes (human head on a recumbent lion), bipedally standing winged lions with human heads, winged humans with avian heads, winged lions, long necked 'lion-griffins' (sometimes called 'lion-dragons'), and lions with avian heads, wings and forelimbs (Frankfort 1937; Goldman 1960; Wyatt 2009; Gane 2012). Within these forms are more variation: they may or may not include wings, tails, ears, 'crests' or horns on the snout, manes of hair or feathers, and teeth, as well as differences in neck length, mouth gape and claw size. The animal species used in these chimeras differ too. For instance, there are bird-griffins with eagle, peafowl and falcon heads, as well as a variety of big cat species reflected in their bodies and limbs. Tails may be of either avian or felid identity.

A selection of griffins forms from Goldman (1960). Note variation in tails, faces, neck length and ears.
Both Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) use different griffin types from a variety of cultures in their argument for the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis, including wingless forms, lion-griffins/dragons, 'classic' bird griffins, as well as toothed and long necked variants. It's argued that these can be distilled to common elements reminiscent of Protoceratops in size and form despite their (sometimes major) anatomical differences, and that this implies a common origin. Variable interpretation of broken fossils are said to explain features which differ from genuine Protoceratops anatomy. For instance, the horns and ears of some griffins might reflect misinterpreted broken skulls and neck frills, and wings could be damaged frills or misidentified shoulder blades. Embellishment of stories passed on from distant lands might explain other variations.

This homogeneous treatment of griffin imagery is troublesome for two reasons. Firstly, the disregarding of griffin form shows a selective approach to evidence gathering, cherry picking elements that suit the Protoceratops origin while ignoring those which are problematic. The fact is most griffin artworks do not look like Protoceratops beyond the superficial similarity of being beaked quadrupeds (see below). Furthermore, griffin art remains differentiated even after Greek and Scythian cultures were known to have been communicative and - theoretically - Protoceratops begin could influence griffin depictions. If there was a solid, real-world basis for griffins once the Greeks and Scythians began talking, why didn't griffin appearance crystalise into something more definitively Protoceratops-like?

Homogenising griffin forms also contradicts modern interpretations of griffin art. Many researchers stress the unique histories, origins and cultural significance of different griffin forms, and some even directly caution about treating these chimeras as interchangeable for fear of obscuring their true meaning and history (e.g. Goldman 1960; Wyatt 2009; Gane 2012). Most scholars simply see griffins as chimeras - creatures invented from components of animals and human individuals for symbolic or literary intent (Wyatt 2009; Gane 2012). It's assumed that differences between griffins reflects efforts to convey information about these creatures or the scenarios they were depicted in. For example, the addition of wings may indicate swiftness or divinity; large, erect ears might suggest alertness; claws imply ferocity, and so on. Studies show that these features were not added randomly to griffin art, and the development of distinctive griffin types can be traced over time (e.g. Goldman 1960). The message from mainstream archaeology seems to be that griffin iconography had complex origins and development within the framework of chimera creation common to ancient cultures, and that generalising their form is probably not the best way to understand them.

Superficial musculature of a lion, illustrated in Goldfinger 2004. The torsos and limbs of detailed griffin art shows the same characteristic muscle groups, specific anatomies and proportions as these cats, suggesting they are not generic quadrupeds but true chimeras of large felids and birds. This muscle plan can easily be seen in some of the imagery posted below and above.
But is it correct to interpret the griffin as a traditional chimera of familiar extant animals or do we need the exotic, extinct form of a Protoceratops to explain their anatomy? I'm not going to compare this dinosaur with all variants on griffin composition here, but will suggest that the 'classic' bird-griffin does not need Protoceratops. To the contrary, it's obviously composed of a bird head mounted on a lion torso, limbs and tail, and topped off with bird wings mounted on the shoulders. There are no especially weird or exotic anatomies that cannot be explained without reference to modern species, and even the oldest renditions of griffins show closely observed details of lion and bird anatomy that leave little doubt as to their source. This is particularly true for the lion elements, where the forefeet often have lion-like thumbs, and large, padded, clawed digits. When griffin tails are not just clumps of feathers, they are long, slender and curve upwards in a very lion-like fashion, and their necks are often adorned with manes. I'm struck at how lion-like the proportions and musculature of the torso and limbs are in most griffin depictions: they are not just generic quadrupeds, but really obviously and specifically referencing big cats (above).

Sketch of a juvenile Protoceratops andrewsi skull, right lateral view.

We can also observe that, on the whole, griffin anatomy often strongly contrasts with the anatomy of Protoceratops. I don't want to set up a straw man here - after all, it's likely we know far more about Protoceratops than anyone who lived thousands of years ago, and the hypothetical passing of tales about Protoceratops from central Asia to eastern Europe is an incredibly long game of Chinese whispers. However, if the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis is to be accepted it needs to pass some basic anatomical tests.

Let's start with the head. It's immediately obvious that there is nothing projecting rearwards from the posterior head region of most griffins, whereas all Protoceratops (even very small juveniles) have some sort of frill extending posterodorsally from the back of the skull (above). The ears and crests of griffins, explained as being the broken frills of Protoceratops fossils, are structures which project upwards from the head, not backwards. If we must give these structures a basis in reality, we can look to the ornamental head feathers of birds for the crests (remember that the heads of some elaborate birds, like peacocks, are used in some griffin art) and any number of common mammal species for the ears. These are surely simpler alternatives than the broken skull bones of dinosaur fossils occurring thousands of miles away from the source of griffin origins. It is often suggested that griffin wings might be mistaken interpretations of the Protoceratops frill, but the wings are clearly set on the shoulders in most griffin art, often behind lion-like neck manes. Moreover, as noted above, not all griffins have wings - how do these versions account for the Protoceratops frill? Protoceratops is also not toothless, its densely packed cheek teeth being obvious in even weathered skulls. The majority of griffin images show a fully toothless beak far more like that of a bird than a ceratopsian dinosaur.
Scott Hartmans's skeletal reconstruction of Protoceratops andrewsi. Borrowed from the excellent Scott Hartman's Skeletal
Protoceratops also does not have lion-like hands or feet, nor any raptorial claws (above). Ceratopsians had relatively stout, blunt claws, and the hands of early taxa like Protoceratops are not especially big. I'm not sure anyone - even folks living thousands of years ago - has ever looked at Protoceratops and been amazed by its powerful limbs or ferocious talons, whereas these are striking characteristics of big cats. Finally, the tail of Protoceratops is proportionally deep, seemingly incapable of significant dorsal curvature, and not at all like that of a lion.

So beyond being beaked animals with four legs, there's no striking similarity between Protoceratops and bird-griffins. Once we start considering the variance in griffin art - the long necks, manes, feathers and so forth - even more differences become apparent. In light of this, and the fact that living animal anatomies can easily account for all elements of ancient griffin depictions, there seems no need to invoke Protoceratops as a part of griffin anatomy. The mainstream view of griffins being simple chimeras of living animals has to be considered a far simpler, and thus more likely, interpretation of their form.

Written accounts of griffin behaviour, and the development of griffin lore

Even if Protoceratops did not inform the raw appearance of griffins, could it be referenced in written accounts of griffin appearance and behaviour, such as their desert-living, parental care and gold-guarding habits? It's perhaps these accounts which provide the best evidence for the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis as they imply the gold-strewn deserts of central Asia as the griffin's home. It's worth summarising some details of the first griffin accounts here as their nature and propagation is important. Please check out Phillips (1955), Bowra (1956), Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) for more details.

Much of Greek griffin lore is derived from stories of the Greek poet Aristeas, who travelled through Asia in c. 675 BCE. His adventures and travels are first recorded in texts from 460-450 BCE (Mayor and Heaney 1993) and were so influential that they continued to be referenced well into the Common Era. However, it's worth stressing that these stories are semi-mythical tales of a semi-mythical man: Aristeas was a real person, but he is described as seeing and doing things which are combinations of real and fantastic phenomena. Scholars still debate the realities behind the locations, events, creatures, and peoples Aristeas encountered, and even ancient Greek authors, such as Herodotus, did not believe everything Aristeas was said to have seen and done (Phillips 1955, Bowra 1956). Among the earliest accounts of Aristeas' travels is the tragedy Prometheus Bound, a tale involving gods, titans, gorgons and other monsters. Here, griffins and other creatures were suggested to live to the far north-east of Greece in a desolate desert setting where nomadic barbarians (the Scythians) also hunted for gold. Other documents from the fifth century BCE, also influenced by tales of Aristeas, tell of griffins guarding the gold sought by men and other beasts. Griffin burrows were mentioned by Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, written in 77 CE, as well as by Pausanias in 170 CE. These authors, again citing Aristeas, described how griffins were engaged in a constant war with a race of one-eyed men, the Arimaspi (Bowra 1956). Later accounts, penned in 200 CE, provide specifics of griffin anatomy and behaviour. They include the familiar accounts of their far eastern habitation of mountains and deserts, as well as new information: their membranous wings (considered useless for flight), the extent of their feathering, the colouration of different body parts, the fiery look in their eyes, the fact that men cannot best adult individuals but can capture their offspring, their nesting behaviour and parental nature, and how miners prospect for gold at night to avoid upsetting them.

Line drawing of a bird-griffin with offspring from Mayor (2011). The original hammered bronze relief dates to 7th Century BCE, Greece. Note the extremely lion-like torso, including strands of hair dangling from the mane. The original has texturing around the neck to further demonstrate the presence of long, shaggy hair.
These stories are the start of griffin lore as we know it today thanks to medieval scholars carrying these basic elements into later versions of griffin legends. But do these stories strengthen the idea that Protoceratops is the 'real' griffin? Again, there are problems. For starters, the major early accounts of griffins are - at best - semi-mythical stories containing numerous imagined beasts and supernatural phenomena. Why we should consider griffins to have any more basis in reality than the gods, monsters or strange human races also mentioned in these stories? If griffins are based on actual phenomena, do we need to seek rationales for these other creatures, too? Secondly, these texts echo griffin art in providing no anatomical details specifically reminiscent of Protoceratops. Indeed, many of their embellishments (feathers, colours, wing membranes etc.) are clearly not based on anything to do with horned dinosaur fossils. These accounts also blatantly refer to living animals, not fossil or skeletonised ones, and their descriptions of griffin wars with one eyed men, the vulnerability of their offspring to human capture and so on fit better with fantastical yarns than accounts of fossil creatures. Mayor (2011) suggests that the some griffin behaviour identified in these texts supports Protoceratops as the griffin source, such as their parenting skills (see image, above). These might marry up nicely with the well-known occurrence of nests and juvenile Protoceratops alongside older individuals, but parental care is easily observable for many animals, including the mammals and birds that comprise the griffin chimera. There is no need to invoke a 'third party' fossil species to explain this behaviour in griffins when thousands of modern species could have provided the same inspiration. This trait is just not specific enough to implicate Protoceratops as being referenced in griffin lore, not to mention that there's no evidence whatsoever of ancient peoples discovering dinosaur eggs or nests.

Protoceratops localities (red) superimposed onto the map of ancient central Asian trade routes and alluvial gold sites presented in Mayor and Haeney (1993). Note the scale bar, bottom right, which represents 200 miles, and the distance between Protoceratops sites and gold deposits (black stars). Protoceratops locality information from Fastovsky et al. (1997) and Lambert et al. (2001).
What of the gold guarding, behaviour, though? This is a specific trait that cannot be casually dismissed for being common among living animals. Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) identify a wealth of alluvial gold deposits that may well be the real inspirations of the gold described in griffin tales and found that some ancient trade routes do bisect central Asian Cretaceous dinosaur beds (see map, above). An argument for Scythian people encountering Protoceratops is starting to look compelling, but, again, closer scrutiny reveals complications. Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) show maps with Cretaceous fossil sites right the way across central Asia, giving the impression that Scythian miners and traders were falling over fossils wherever they went. But we're not just after any old Cretaceous fossils: we're specifically after Protoceratops. Both species of this dinosaur only occur in a few select localities in the southernmost region of Mongolia and adjacent to the China/Mongolia border (Fastovsky et al. 1997; Lambert et al. 2001). Those ancient trade routes and mining sites need to approach these specific sites if we're to bring Protoceratops into this story. Comparing modern Protoceratops localities with the maps in Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) shows that these dinosaurs occur several hundred kilometres east from the nearest alluvial gold deposits, and even further away from the most productive regions (above). The identified ancient gold sites are mostly west or southwest of the Altai Mountains, suggesting ancient folks would only encounter Protoceratops fossils if they travelled hundreds of kilometres away from the core mining sites.

This also present a further complication to the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis: are Protoceratops localities likely to contain gold when they're so far away from the alluvial gold sites? Both Mayor and Heaney (1993) and Mayor (2011) argue that desert storms may have transported nuggets of gold to Protoceratops localities, and that seeing these transported nuggets alongside Protoceratops fossils may account for the gold-guarding element of the griffin mythos. This is something we can test because the geology of Protoceratops sites is well documented and understood. Assuming the same basic meteorological processes occur today as thousands of years ago, we should see evidence of windswept gold in the Protoceratops bonebeds. But as far as I'm aware, no gold has been reported from these sites, either as surface debris or as buried elements. Moreover, although the possibility of wind transportation is not excluded entirely, no gold is mentioned by the palaeontologists with Mongolian field experience interviewed by Mayor and Heaney (1993) or Mayor (2011). All this considered, the link between Protoceratops and gold deposits is not compelling.

Finally, it's worth noting that the Greek accounts of griffins may no longer be the only texts on these creatures from the first century BCE. Gane (2012) discusses Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian literature which is tentatively thought to describe another take on griffin lore. This provides a very different interpretation of griffins as divine guardians against evil spirits, possibly associated with funerary rites. This sounds little like the idea that they were desert-dwelling, gold-hoarding wild animals, and of course suggests no obvious link to fossil animals of China and Mongolia. If correct, this find shows that our Greek legends are only one set of griffin lore: they are more familiar to us because of their retention in the post-classical period, but they might not be the only, or even the original interpretation of these creatures. Thus, even if Protoceratops is something to do with the griffin - which is far from a done deal - it is likely only involved in one component of griffin folklore. This seems to echo points made above about the griffin as a very old and complex concept, and how interpretations of its origins are blurred by multiculturalism.

So... is Protoceratops the basis of the griffin myth?

Before we answer that, here's a quick summary of the main issues outlined here:
  • Near Eastern griffin culture seems to occur thousands of years before we have evidence for it in central Asia, suggesting Protoceratops anatomy could not be referenced in any way in the conception of the original griffin.
  • Griffin anatomies, in all their variants, are entirely and best explained as chimeras of extant animals. There is no need to invoke any exotic fossil anatomies in their design.
  • Griffin iconography, and perhaps written legends, are sufficiently varied to suggest a complex set of origins and legends for these creatures.
  • Ancient Greek writings seem to lack compelling references to Protoceratops, and the aspects of appearance and behaviour they discuss clearly indicate they were not informed by fossilised animals. Several details of these accounts suggest they must be talking about imaginary creatures.
  • Protoceratops fossils are found hundreds of kilometres from ancient Scythian gold mines, undermining the suggestion they might be the source of griffin gold guarding lore. There is no indication - historic or geological - that fossils of this dinosaur species have ever been associated with gold.
With all this said, it seems invoking Protoceratops to the griffin myth is nothing but a complication for griffin origins. Data has to be selected to fit this model and then worked around, rather than with, existing ideas on griffin origins that better account for its history, cultural diversity and spread among ancient peoples.

So, no, I can't see any reason to think Protoceratops has anything to do with griffin lore, and entirely understand the mainstream view of it as a chimeric animal cooked up by ancient cultures of the Near East. Interestingly, none of the recent papers on griffin lore and imagery I looked at in preparation for this article mention the Protoceratops-griffin hypothesis, and it's surprisingly challenging to find much mention of it in any peer-reviewed literature. This is despite its 23 year vintage and wide popularity among educators, media outlets and some palaeontologists. It clearly has not been adopted as readily by archaeologists as by those of us interested in dinosaur science. I suspect this idea has found greater mileage among the palaeontologically minded because it presents an interesting and seemingly reasonable story, but it also straddles disciplines and knowledge bases to discourage further research from people mainly interested in extinct animals. Given the lack of commentary on this idea from archaeological quarters, I'm curious to know what folks with a greater understanding of ancient cultures and histoy make of this idea.

This Protoceratops article and painting has origins at Patreon

The artwork and words you see here are supported by folks who back me on Patreon, the service which allows you to directly support artists and authors with monthly payments. This long, detailed article is exactly the sort of thing I can produce because of this support. If you enjoyed it and would like to see more, you can back my blog from $1 a month. In exchange, you get access to bonus art, discussion and rewards - the more you pledge, you more bonuses you receive! For this post, my patrons were privy to in-progress versions of the painting at the top of the article, discussions of Protoceratops anatomy, and narrowly avoided lots of swearing about rendering of complicated frill geometry. As usual, thanks to everyone who already supports me!


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