The Strange Journey of David Peters

Posted by Nima On Saturday, May 14, 2011 34 comments

Well some of you might already know this, but David Peters is back!

That's right, the paleoartist whose pterosaur faux-pas and downright bizarre illustrations backfired on him and made him a paleo-pariah had returned. Now he has a new and much more detailed website, and it seems he's at it again.You may remember a few years ago that Peters got a huge pile of flak from researchers in the field for his downright bizarre pterosaur illustrations and his theories on their evolution. Just looking at the things makes your eyes hurt.

 Drawing of Pterodactylus (yes, I said Pterodactylus, NOT Pteranodon) based on David Peters' theories. Actual drawing by Cevdet Koseman and John Conway, not Peters.

Actual David Peters skeletal drawing of Pterodactylus. Yes, he actually believes it had a crest, all those crazy neck wattles, and a much longer tail than usually depicted. 
I've NEVER seen evidence of such a tail in Pterodactylus fossils.

Peters became the target of much criticism and mockery from the field (not all of it undeserved, I might add) for his downright weird pterosaur illustrations and equally weird theories on their origins and anatomy. The field sees him as more or less of a crank. And after years of almost no internet activity and a dead web site, he's BACK! And he's causing a bit of a stir in the paleo-community. But first, who is David Peters?

Some brief background

Those who already are familiar with his history can skip this paragraph. David Peters is a commercial/advertising artist who got involved in paleo-art back in the 90s, doing paintings for a few dinosaur books and even authoring his own book on evolution, From The Beginning. It's a very interesting and beautifully illustrated book, Peters certainly has tons of talent and knowledge of reptile and mammal evolution.

 Two T. rex attack Quetzalcoatlus by David Peters. 
Great stuff, though a tree-climbing Quetz looks a bit weird.

His dinosaur paintings are also pretty impressive and accurate, a lot like Greg Paul's work. In fact, Peters may well have become the next Greg Paul if he hadn't biffed it on the pterosaurs.

So what happened with those pterosaurs anyway?

David Peters, around 2000 or so, began theorizing about Pterosaurs in detail. His first contention (shown on this web page) was that the traditional bat-winged model of pterosaur wings was incorrect and that they were actually free-legged and some could even run bipedally on the ground. This is actually something I tend to agree with, as the notion of bat-like wings extending all the way to the knees or ankles looks to me to be based entirely on squished fossils with displaced and torn wing membranes. However, things quickly went downhill from there...

Peters then postulated that pterosaurs were not archosaurs, but prolacertiformes - in other words, that they were not cousins of dinosaurs, as most palontologists accept, but actually more closely related to lizards. While this is the less popular of the two theories, Peters emphatically contends that pterosaurs were lizards, and that anyone who disagrees just isn't ready to open up to the facts (keep in mind Peters doesn't have a degree in any paleo-related field - not that this discredits him, but he's up against some pretty well-established PhDs). However, the majority of pterosaur researchers, including Dr. David Unwin, Dr. Mark Witton, Dr. David Hone, and Mike Habib, agree on an archosaurian origin for pterosaurs, not a lizard-like one. My verdict on the lizard theory: FAIL! Peters even draws pterosaur skulls in such a way as to make them LOOK more lizard-like than they actually are, and also distorts the proportions of several bones and joints, not to mention adding all the wacky crests, wattles, artificially long pterodactyloid tails and imaginary skin appendages which may just be displaced soft tissue, impressions of intestines and the like. He also never adequately addresses the clearly archosaurian (and on top of that, ornithodiran) ankle joints of pterosaurs.

So why the heck this guy so unpopular?

There are several reasons. First, he's generally had an abrasive way of answering his critics. Second, he hounded and trolled researchers of the opposing archosaur-origin view, like Dr. David Hone (more on that later). And third, he acted like his methods are more reliable than the firsthand analyses of PhD professors. And what were his methods? Basically Photoshop. That's right, he just traced features in pictures of the fossils in Photoshop, without ever having seen them in person. And this is supposedly an 'accurate' way to restore crushed pterosaur fossils, according to him. I can see this approach working with sauropods or other big animals whose bodies are rarely preserved with any sort of soft-tissue impression anyway, and are not easily squashed. But for delicate creatures like pterosaurs, especially one found in slab fossils with mashed-up soft tissue stains, it's woefully problematic.

Look for example at Peters' strangely palm-tree-like skeletal of Longisiquama, the weird "proto-lizard" which he claims was an ancestor of pterosaurs (and ironically is also claimed by some BANDits as the ancestor of birds!)

Now look at how he traced so many hypothetical "structures" on the fossil slab which aren't even visible in the image (and conceivably not even with increased contrast) to get his skeletal concept.

Look at all those little weird filament outlines! Is that stuff real? I don't see most of it in the fossil photograph!

Dr. Michael P. Taylor of SV-POW was willing to keep an open mind and test David Peters' Photoshop fossil tracing technique, with results of a uniquely British manner of hilariosity.

Eventually, Peters put up his own garish-looking website,, which was full of his off restorations of pterosaurs and proto-lizards. The site soon after closed down. Apparently he closed down the site because it wasn't getting a lot of attention from paleontologists, and he didn't consider it worth the money to keep it up (again, more on that later). Peters has also implied in many instances that his photoshop method is equally or more accurate than diagrams and drawings by people who have actually seen the real fossils. Ridiculous, since photos can contain false data, and the human brain can potentially create more false data by how it interprets the photos. David Marjanovic responded to Peters' claims as follows:  

In each and every one of these examples, you simply assume that your interpretations of photos were correct and other people's interpretations of the specimens themselves were wrong.

That can only be tested by going back to the specimens and looking at them, which you didn't. Your self-confidence is getting in the way of testing your hypotheses. 

Peters has historically reacted badly to this kind of criticism. He has repeatedly hounded experts in the field like Dr. David Hone, who has many times made clear that trolling and internet harassment is no substitute for publishing a rebuttal paper, and that tracing photos is no substitute for seeing a real fossil specimen in person.

In addition, on the DML, Peters has made some rather inane and insulting arguments about how a photograph is no worse than the original specimen and that scientists drawing from the real specimen can't get any better results than an amateur tracing from a photograph - only to get shot down by pretty much EVERY scientist who responded. In response Peters heckled the experts some more, "challenging" them to test if they could do better drawings of the fossils with their methods than he could with Photoshop tracing - as if this subjective contest somehow circuitously proved his argument about pterosaurs being lizards. It really wouldn't prove anything of the sort. Cries of "crackpot" ensued.

Then things REALLY got ugly. Here's one of Peters' diatribes against Dr. Mike Taylor.

Mike Taylor:  
David Hone is right. Photos are no substitute for seeing a specimen. Sorry.
That's how it is.

David Peters:

References? Experiments?

Mike, with your "That's how it is" paradigm we would have no relativity, no integrated baseball and the earth would be the center of a tiny universe only a few thousand years old.

Mike Taylor:  

All Right, Dave. Unlike some other list members, I've always made the effort to treat your work with respect. That's over now. With this message, you've crossed a line. You equate the preferential use of fossils over photographs with institutionalised racism? That doesn't quite invoke Godwin's law, but it's close enough that I'm not going to bother playing this game any more.

Just in case anyone else was too dim to understand this perfectly simple thing: "That's how it is" is not a REASON to adhere to the status quo, but a DESCRIPTION of what has been established, by scientific inquiry as orthodox. So if Dave Peters comes to me and says "My tracings of aeriel photographs show that the Earth is flat", I will reply "No, the earth is round; that's how it is". Because something that has been so emphatically and repeatedly demonstrated is not worth the energy of arguing about. We're done with that. Move on. 

(And this, of course, is why David Hone isn't pissing away his time playing your stupid games. As you'll have noticed from his impressive recent record, he's spending that time on writing papers instead -- doing science. Proper, reproducible science based on actual fossils rather than JPEG artifacts and the phase of the moon. I might suggest that you go and do likewise but the last few years have clearly demonstrated that you won't. So I'll leave it there.) 

A paleontologist who studied a fossil firsthand could try to reason with Peters a million times that such-and-such blot really is just a random natural feature of the rock rather than a soft-tissue structure of the pterosaur, and it wouldn't matter how good his drawing was, Peters still could refuse to believe him. But think about it - which one has actually SEEN the real fossil? Of course it should be pretty clear to everyone that looking at photographs is no substitute for studying the real fossil in person. I'd say Heinrich Mallison summed it up best:

I'd like to point out to Mr. Peters that he has, I have heard from
reputable sources, in the past interpreted a specimen as preserving
soft tissues when in fact the layer that the fossil was in was
prepared away all around the bones, so that what he was seeing on the
photograph was in fact a pedestal.
No further comment on that needed. Nor do his attacks on Dr. Hone merit comment.

Also, I'd like to direct him and all other interested parties to my
assessment of a 'I have not seen it so I use published drawings
instead' based drawing of Plateosaurus by Greg Paul (who has done
awesome work on many other occasions):

Not seeing a specimen = higher risk of errros than seeing it
Seeing a specimen once or twice = higher risk of errors than being
able to see it repeatedly, and play with the bones
Preconceived notion = error guaranteed.

So, Mr. David Peters, please stop whining. Dave Hone was spot on with
his post, as any reputable scientist knows. 

I couldn't have said it better myself - even the best photos are no substitute for the real thing. Even casts are no substitute, since you can't do histological studies on them.

If photos captured every detail perfectly and could differentiate between preserved organic structures and simple stains/paint smudges/impurities in the rock, then what would we even need fossils for? Why didn't the Field Museum simply let some private collector buy 'Sue' at auction, when a photo would be just as scientifically informative?!?!?! Why did they spend millions of dollars putting every one of Sue's bones through a gazillion CAT Scans and X-ray slices when they could just take a simple photo and learn everything from that? Why don't they just sell their Apatosaurus fossils, the Brachiosaurus type specimen, and those massive Argyrosaurus femurs they've been keeping for well over a century? After all there are plenty of detailed photos of those, plus they're old non-digital pictures and don't have the pixel distortion of digital photos! Think of all the money they would have to fund more research! Who needs fossils anyway?

Who indeed...

Fact is, without having the actual fossils, more than half of the paleo-research that gets done today would be impossible. Practically ALL of Larry Witmer's work, Mary Schweitzer's work, and any papers on internal structures of bone histology could never have happened if the fossils didn't exist.

That's why the loss of Amphicoelias fragillimus is so lamented among sauropod workers. 

It's why so many sauropod workers don't take Yadagiri and Ayyasami seriously - because they only produced a few incredibly crappy drawings for Bruhathkayosaurus and never excavated any of the alleged fossils despite hyping up the thing as the biggest dinosaur ever - now they conveniently claim the whole thing is lost forever, got washed away in a monsoon no doubt! (Yeah right, and I have a bridge on the Indus to sell these guys!)

It's why the destruction of the original Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Aegyptosaurus type material in World War II was such a big loss for science. Even from a strictly superficial visual standpoint, the existing drawings and photos of that material, while very detailed and beautiful, still leave out a lot of details that can only be observed in person.

If photos and tracings really told it all, nobody would care what happens to fossils. Fossil poaching and commercial collecting wouldn't be a major concern in the field, in fact it wouldn't be a concern at all. The SVP wouldn't have a conflict of interest clause in its membership policy, nor would it have so many explicit bylaws and disciplinary policies against digging up fossils for profit. Take it from me, I've been a member since last year and I've read their entire bylaws section at least 10 times. The whole thing is one huge anti-fossil poaching ethics code. The real fossils DO MATTER.

Perhaps the biggest problem with David Peters is that nobody in paleontology seems to have the time to bother testing the efficiency of David Peters' indirect observation tracing methods more than David Peters. Everyone with a PhD is too busy analyzing the real fossils IN PERSON and publishing research to bother with testing a Photoshop method that's prone to much human error and misperception.

Jaime Headden had this to say on Peters:

He really is a nice guy and is fully willing to discuss and talk with you and your theories (even about his theories) at leisure. I met Dave before the photointerpretive technique began to be employed, and we discussed the identity of elements of the Batrachognathus skull in some depth, but I've not had the opportunity to sit down and retrace his observations, though I have used some similar techniques in piecing out elements of the Protarchaeopteryx robusta skull, counting "dentition", etc. Dave is also aware that people don't believe in his position, and that some people have not bitten his technique. He chalks this up as because there are too many people who are not willing to try his technique as he does it.

So far, no one I know of has tried to do a double-blind test of the technique, allowing third parties to take pieces of specimens at high resolution, use the technique, and compare with strict visual observation. This would actually take a lot of money or a reasonably-sized collection of specimens from different sedimentologic and depositional regimes.

One of the biggest problems here is that Dave is not a geologist, and while some of us have not held this against him, his strategy requires some knowledge of the method by which these fossils arrive in their current condition, including the process of slab-splitting and irregular preparation.

So then whatever happened to David Peters?

After fighting for his initial research which involved the Photoshop method and all his speculative sails, wattles and filaments which were mostly just artifacts of preparation, random splotches in the rock, or indecipherable blurred areas in grainy photographs, Peters seemed to have taken a hiatus. He had a website for a while, This site apparently had citations of his (apparently meager) published work and some very odd pictures and figures. He shut it down allegedly due to lack of interest from the paleo-community. This old exchange on a message board is pretty telling of David Peters and how the paleontological profession views him:

> In a discussion about whether Noach & sons may have used pterosaurs as
> flying mounts (don't ask), a participitant invoked a certain David
> Peters, the possessor of a website on pterosaurs at
> with a ghastly colour scheme, as an authority for
> what seems to be pretty extreme sizes and abilities for larger
> Azhdarchids, particularly Quetzalcoatlus. Numbers like 18m wingspan and
> 400-500 kg weight were mentioned, which is alot bigger than any other
> estimate i can find on the net. It was also implied this monster was
> capable of power flight!
> Looking around at the net, many popular pages refer enthusiastically to
> Mr Peters and his webpage, but it seems professional pterosaur workers
> consider him an unscientific phantast. I was wondering what people here
> think of him.

David Peters is well known among the Pterosaur & Dinosaur workers. He is
not in the academia and many people in academia take a rather dim view of
him. Go to Dinosaur Mailing List Archive ( and
search for David Peters to see his posts and replies by pterosaur workers
from academia, specially Chris Bennett & David Unwin.  

Well there you have it. Peters in a nutshell.

Thing is, has long been defunct. You can't even find the URL when you type it in a Google search!

For a while we all pretty much thought David Peters was gone and perhaps only popped up every now and then to bug Dave Hone on his blog. He also voiced some comments at the administrators of ArtEvolved a while back, over an old post of mine on that blog - he accused me of character assassination, whereas I did no such thing - I merely criticized his theory and methods, not his character (which I know nothing about, to be sure, since I've never met the guy). I have no interest in "character assassinating" Peters, as I admire a lot of his art (mainly his dinosaurs and proto-mammals) and the huge amount of work he put into his book From the Beginning. Though he's mainly a commercial advertising artist, he had a very bright future in paleoart back in the 90s, and it saddens me more than anything else to see him get bogged down in petty disputes over photoshop pterosaurs or repeatedly pestering PhD researchers on their own blogs or the DML.

But wait - Peters is Back!

Now the sole and solitary grand master of pterosaur knowledge (technically indirect to the nth degree through the loss of data inherent in all photographs and 2d representations, but hey, who cares about all that) has made his return.

The return of David Peters has actually taken not one but two forms.

The first is his new (and extremely tricky to navigate) paleontology website, It's chock full of his wacky skeletal diagrams of pterosaurs, ancient lizards, archosaurs, proto-mammals, and proto-reptiles, among many other obscure creatures.

Here, among some semi-credible skeletals of primitive reptiles, you can find all of his weird and laughable interpretations (and most of his Photoshop tracings) of pterosaurs, including his artificially long-tailed Pterodactylus, his mysteriously palm-tree-backed Longisiquama, and his sail-backed, vampire fanged Jeholopterus (which actually influenced an episode of the British sci-fi sitcom Primaeval):

That tail is way too long, but that's the least of this picture's problems. There were no vampire fangs on these little pterosaurs. The "fang" was simply a strut of skull bone that got displaced in the fossil. The field has roundly rejected this restoration as unscientific. He looked at displaced fur impressions which seemed to be well outside the rib cage and automatically assumed the creature had a fuzzy sail extending far above its back. This is the same basic mistake he makes with plenty of fossils, assuming that squished, displaced soft tissue stains represent how the soft tissues looked in life! In reality there was no such sail, the skin and fur just got displaced sideways when the animal was compressed during the sedimentation process.

A couple of warnings about First off, the site is NOT a compendium of the sum total knowledge of the field - while Peters names thousands of specimens and cites some literature here and there, much of the actual content and opinions in the site come solely from the mind of David Peters. It's all his own interpretations of everything, some plausible, others outlandish, and the only citations on the site that actually back up his theories and rampant criticism of established PhDs are his own. There's even a large rant page specifically devoted to attacking and undermining the claims of those in the field. Some of the "rebuttals" on this page make some sense, others are just flat-out ludicrous, and yet others are so obscure and pedantic that I have no idea whether or not they have a grain of truth to them.

Second, there is NO curriculum vitae anywhere on the site, so people not familiar with Peters and the sort of research he has done will just end up confused as to how much experience he really has with paleontology - and it's VERY easy to sway layman's opinion with your art when you can grind out the kind of detailed drawings that Mr. Peters regularly does.

However, there is a CV of his published work on his other site - this is the second form of his reappearance on the web, basically a hub site that has links to all his projects, both paleo-related and otherwise. There are only 8 papers listed, and only half of these are related to his extreme theories of pterosaur origins and anatomy. While most are in peer-reviewed publications, they are largely not all that controversial or direct. The most important and incendiary entry in his CV is not peer-reviewed however - it was a talk given by Peters at a pterosaur convention in Germany, and it's his core cited "source" for claiming that Pterosaurs are lizards not archosaurs based on Photoshop manipulation. I'm not sure any of his Photoshop methods would actually stand up to peer review.


What can we say... I suppose there are still many chapters in the story of Mr. Peters still to play out. The fact that he's made a comeback on the internet probably means that he's going to make some attempt to spark more pterosaur controversy. The guy's got an ENORMOUS amount of art talent, his websites look pretty good from a purely visual/aesthetic point of view, and he can probably grind out a million skeletals and trace nearly as many fossil photographs and drive to work all at once! So mad props to him for that. Though I really wish he would produce more of his gorgeous books about dinosaurs and fewer pseudo-pterosaur Photoshop oddities - it's making it exponentially harder to take him seriously. Yet his skills as a painter really are (or at least were) top-notch, and I admire the heck out of his dinosaur and proto-mammal art. And if he'd stuck to painting dinosaurs and left the fossil analysis of squashed pterosaurs to the people who actually have studied the real fossils, he'd be a major player in paleo-art today, possibly even bigger than Greg Paul or many others. His books on prehistoric animals are STILL some of the best-illustrated ones you can find, and despite some inaccuracies with things like unfeathered raptors with protoptagia (skin-flaps on the front of the arms) his dinosaur work is remarkably on point.

His current website Reptile Evolution is borderline pseudoscientific, but it's relatively easy to change; most of the cited literature and even a bit of of the analysis is fine, it's just his illustrations and inferences that need fixing. I hope some day he'll take a second look at this stuff and clean it up (though based on all his DML debates, heckling of Dr. Hone and others, and what Dr. Taylor said after finally being pushed too far, I sadly doubt Mr. Peters will ever do such a thing).

I'm also a really big enthusiast of seeing how phylogeny and evolution turn out with every new analysis, and the kind of work Peters did for his book From the Beginning is extremely impressive (though admittedly HOW he decided which animals to put in the mammalian evolutionary sequence perplexes me to no end).

His other books, like GIANTS and A Gallery of Dinosaurs and Other Early Reptiles were also fine works of art and scale. Nobody else has really been able to produce the same effect of relative size and scale in dinosaur or nature books, and get so many things right in proportions (Gallery of Dinosaurs has a few errors, but nothing all that bad for a dinosaur book of the 90s, and is arguably one of the best nonfiction children's books ever written) and a pretty decent job with colors. So I definitely have a lot of respect for David Peters as an artist and an author of popular books on the most amazing creatures that have ever lived.

His collaboration with Don Lessem for the books Raptors! and Supergiants! was pretty impressive too, lots of detail there that, though a bit rushed, nevertheless can compare with the work of Greg Paul and Wayne Barlowe. A great eye for color and shadow, 3D form, and functional skeletal anatomy. Supergiants! came later and is the better book, not just because I like sauropods, but because the art is generally more accurate and better quality (though the dismal scan quality from doesn't come close to doing it justice).

All in all, Peters had a lot going for him as a paleo-artist. Perhaps deep down inside he still might. Maybe he has a small chance of salvaging his reputation in the paleo-sphere. Most would say probably not, based on everything he's done since 2000. But I don't want to say for sure just yet.
And I'd really like to see him 'return to his roots' so to speak, and produce more of the type of solid, respectable work you see just above, work that got him so much positive acclaim back in the 90s.

It's just incredibly sad and disturbing to see where he went after all that.



Taylor Reints said...

"And after years of almost no internet activity and a dead web site, he's BACK!"
I don't know about that, he does subscribe to my Pterosauria blog (he did so around three months ago).

Ville Sinkkonen said...

Glad to see you got your blogger issues fixed. good review of the whole Peters saga. I would however like to say that you should have left the whole Scientologist part out. It's simply wholly irrellevant to the discussion regarding hes ventures to the world of paleo.

What little interaction I have had with Mr. Peters via email discussion he has come off as kind, polite and enthusiastic. Discussions with him can be frustrating as he seems to be very confident about hes views and is often certain about things that are just simply uncertain.

Albertonykus said...

Possibly even stranger than David Peters but (so far) less impactful:

Nima said...

@ Taylor:

I didn't know that.... well if it's only three months ago then his comeback is still pretty recent considering he barely had any online paleo-presence for several years.

@ Ville:

Point taken. This is a paleo-blog after all (though like SV-POW, I'm open to doing some off-topic posts). Plus I don't want the shitstorm of legal woes that could ensue.

I don't really know what to make of Peters. Some of his pterosaur ideas (particularly on wing attachment, bipedalism in some forms, and leg membranes) are actually pretty easy for me to agree with, but all that lizard stuff and the weird structures he draws all over them are just not supported. And I have no clue how he comes up with the mashed-up shapes and proportions of some of the pterosaur skeletals he has on his site, which radically vary even within the same genus. It's ironic how in an effort to challenge the "status quo" theories in paleontology, some people actually end up proposing and defending hypotheses that are far more circuitous and less parsimonious than the dominant theory.

@ Albertonykus:

That is a downright insane blog. These people make Peters look like Einstein by comparison. They know NOTHING about archosaur evolution. Though I kinda had a feeling this was coming since Longisiquama has been strangely proposed as both a pterosaur ancestor (by Peters) and a bird ancestor (by Feduccia and the other BANDits), it was only a matter of time until someone skipped this odd creature altogether and flat-out claimed that pterosaurs led to birds! It's also interesting the blog claims it "does not take a position on the "evolutionism" vs. "creationism" question." As if there's actually a real debate currently going on between the two in scientific circles LOL. How ignorant of science can these folks get? Plus I don't like how they say "evolutionism" as if it's a religion. Evolution is a natural process, not a faith, ideology, or "ism". It's demonstrably there whether you "believe in" it or not. There's no such thing as "evolutionISM".

qilong said...

Nima, very detailed review of the situation. I maintain what I've said about Dave, the man -- although there are many other observations to make about Dave, the researcher. Even though I've made some comments about the realm of work of Theagarten Lingham-Soliar and the attempts at disproof of extra-integumental structures therein, I have never and still feel it unwise, to make arguments of a personal level toward the man. I feel the same is true of Dave, even though I know him better than TLS (at all, even!). Dave's realm of work should speak for itself, which it does, and this is unfavorable to Dave, the researcher. That's all I should say.

Trish said...

By a crazy coincidence, I just recently reviewed _Raptors: the Nastiest Dinosaurs_ (see here: ). You've moved me to seek out _From the Beginning_, _Giants_, _Supergiants_, and _A Gallery..._ too! Wish me luck!

Maija Karala said...

Uh. The Reptile Evolution site would be an awesome resource, if one could trust it. A huge amount of clear, well drawn skeletal references of things other than dinosaurs... I could really use that, but I don't have the expertise to say if a given proto-reptile, proto-mammal or prolacertiform is accurate or some weird David Peters interpretation. The pterosaurs are obvious, but the others not so much.

I just hope there won't be a flood of works by amateur paleoartists who think they have found an awesome reference site...

JerkyD said...

"In fact, Peters may well have become the next Greg Paul if he hadn't biffed it on the pterosaurs."

One could argue that Greg Paul is the new David Peters (I.e. A talented paleoartist gone mad &, as a result, the butt of internet jokes).

D.P. said...

Hi Dave here.

Probably best to take one point at a time.

#1. Pterosaurs are lizards.

Current thinking (all the latest from Nesbitt and Irmis) nest pterosaurs as derived from Proterochampsids and Parasuchians in cladograms, but then there's nothing else in the literature to support that. I trust that no one contributing comments to this post can do so either. Nor are there three or four taxa from those clades that display a gradual increase in pterosaurian characters. Scleromochlus, a favorite purported pterosaur sister, has tiny hands, reduced lateral fingers and no lateral toes, among several other problematic traits. Comparisons to Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx and Longisquama are much more favorable. You can see prepubes and pteroids along with that wonderul elongated fifth toe on these taxa. Plus the extradermal membranes. Add Huehuecuetzpalli and now Lacertulus to that list (both have unfused tarsals that operate like pterosaur tarsals) and you nest with pterosaurs with a new clade of lizards distinct from Scleroglossa and Iguania. That clade also includes drepanosaurs and tanystropheids. Prolacerta and kin are not included. I support all these observations on my website with text and rollover images. You can have my NEXUS file by request. Any questions or comments will be responded to quickly and politely.

As a scientist, I support testing above all. The Photoshop method can often yield superior results as shown by the original tracings of Jeholopterus, Longisquama and the four pterosaur eggs with embryos detailed in The process is now called DGS or Digital Graphic Segregation and I encourage others wrestling with the chaos of crushed fossils to employ it. I and others (Laurin, Nosotti and probably anyone who has had to trace fish ribs) have found it very useful.

D.P. said...


Dave again.

I am pleased to respond to Nima's comments regarding the crest and tail of this putative "Pterodactylus" specimen (Senckenberg-Museum Frankfurt a. M. No. 4072, No. 12 of Wellnhofer 1970), featured at the top of this blog, which actually nests close to but outside the clade containing the holotype of Pterodactylus and several other Pterodactylus species). No. 12 nests at the base of the Germanodactylus clade, which is known for crests, long tails (Darwinopterus nests there) and elongated pedal digit V. In my rush to put together this very large website I used an old image of No. 12. That has been updated now and I thank you for the impetus to do that.

You can see the No. 12 page here:

There is a link on that page to a GIF movie page in which the insitu image is enlarged and successively overlaid by interpretive tracings and Photoshop enhancements changing every 5 seconds located here:

You can see the fully resolved pterosaur tree here:

And, of course I encourage perusal of the website for additional comments, corrections and what have you. Though difficult to see and interpret, sometimes matrix surface topology can be mistaken for soft tissue. The DGS method permits image tracing and enhancement that, so far, has rarely been replicated using traditional methods. And, of course, digital images with overlays are the perfect way to quickly share data with colleagues. More resolution always helps.

With regard to my mistakes regarding the Nyctosaurus skull, the method did permit the tracing of every brush stroke on the built-up background. That I interpreted it wrongly is not a fault of the technique, but completely mea culpa. I have made and will make other mistakes, as have others. I need not remind you, this IS the process of science. I count on colleagues to point out potential errors and vice versa. Greater resolution in the original material is always helpful. That Cope made an error in reconstructing Elasmosaurus does not negate the rest of his work, and that applies to all paleontologists.

D.P. said...

8. You quoted David Marjanovic, who wrote, “In each and every one of these examples, you simply assume that your interpretations of photos were correct and other people's interpretations of the specimens themselves were wrong. That can only be tested by going back to the specimens and looking at them, which you didn't. Your self-confidence is getting in the way of testing your hypotheses.” Actually I only said you can get more detail using Photoshop. Not “correct” and “wrong.” That could be due to persistence. That could be due to method. Several examples are provided in And mistakes can be made in any case. Misinterpretations have been made in fossils long before the invention of Photoshop. I always encourage others to retest my observations using my methods. That is the essence of scientific testing.

9. re: “hounding David Hone.” Dr. Hone became miffed when I pointed out that what he labeled as a Dorygnathus was actually a Rhamphorhynchus. Things like that seem to set him off.

10. “Trolling” ?? Going to the blog you mentioned, you’ll notice that Dr. Hone was trying his best to be polite to someone who considered bats to have descended from pterosaurs. I was trying to help by sending a reference to a recent published paper and finally suggesting that the dude was pranking Dr. Hone. How is that trolling? Nothing inflammatory there.

11. “internet harassment” ?? To disagree and back up that disagreement with referenced data is now considered harassment? I hope not.

12. You reported, “"challenging" them to test if they could do better drawings of the fossils with their methods than he could with Photoshop.” -- This is indeed the scientific method. Testing is the only way to find out if assertions and methods are valid or not.

13. You reported, “as if this subjective contest somehow circuitously proved his argument about pterosaurs being lizards.” - Nothing of the sort. Only a cladogram can do that.

14. re: “That is how it is.” Many people have said, “That is how it is” without testing to see if maybe there was a better way, as Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Columbus, the Wright Brothers, Santos-Dumont, Eli Whitney, Edmund Hubble, Albert Einstein AND, yes, Branch Rickey have all found out. Photoshop vs. first-hand data recovery needs to be tested by someone other than me.

BTW, the first time a photo proved to be better than first-hand observation, for me, was when I mentioned to Silvio Renesto that there was a skull and a set of cervicals oriented posteriorly beneath the ribcage of his Langobardisaurus skeleton (the first one). With first-hand observation he missed it. With a photograph I found it. The second time was when Dino Frey sent me a photo of Muzquizopteryx, which he took to be a cycnorhamphid, but I thought was a nyctosaurid. So these things happen.

15. You reported, “even the best photos are no substitute for the real thing.” There is no argument here, and never has been, especially with fossils preserved in 3D, like the Plateosaurus. But pterosaurs are most often preserved in a 2D plane, layered and crushed. So the detractors you quote, and your own comments, are comparing apples and oranges. You’re arguing, with great vigor, a point I never made.

16. You quoted, “Numbers like 18m wingspan and
> 400-500 kg weight were mentioned,” I never mentioned weight or that size in any pterosaur website. That is a creationist invention that you somehow ascribe to me.

D.P. said...

17. You report, “search for David Peters to see his posts and replies by pterosaur workers from academia, specially Chris Bennett & David Unwin.” well, let’s face it, most of my studies argue against their work, which is often built on assertions and a few mistakes. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. If I had said pterosaur eggs were buried for weeks to months before hatching, then imagine the outcry at how ridiculous it would be for fragile babies with even more fragile wing membranes to dig themselves out, yet that’s what Dr. Unwin proposed. As lizards, pterosaur mothers could have retained their eggs until just prior to hatching, as demonstrated by the less than full term and poorly ossified embryo in the egg passed by Mrs. T, the mother Darwinopterus seen here:

18. The “character assassination” thing was made when you attributed that Bosch-looking reconstruction to my hand. As a professional artist, I make a living on my reputation. To ascribe that art to me on the Internet was tantamount to sabotaging that reputation. Nothing more.

19. You reported, “sail-backed, vampire fanged Jeholopterus.” Um, that’s actually the widely-reported pycnofibers drawn there. The tail you don’t like is traced here:

20. You reported, “The "fang" was simply a strut of skull bone that got displaced in the fossil.” Which skull bone? All the others are accounted for. Apparently the upper jaw has no teeth, other than those fangs. And the palate reconstruction buttresses those fangs. The hypothesis is that the buttress was there for a reason, to spread the force of impact to the rear and sides of the otherwise fragile skull. See how it all fits together?

21. You reported, “The field has roundly rejected this restoration as unscientific.” Taking the definition of “scientific” that means my work is NOT “systematic, methodical, organized, well-organized, ordered, orderly, meticulous, rigorous; exact, precise, accurate, mathematical; analytical, rational.”
Is that what you mean? If so, please take a look at my work with the skull of Jeholopterus here: versus the original tracing seen in the upper left corner of the same figure and run through those points with me, one by one. To my eye, my tracing seems to adhere to the definition of “scientific” more than the original, rather cartoonish figure.

22. You report about, “the site is NOT a compendium of the sum total knowledge of the field.“ I never said it was. Who could make such a bombastic statement? I did say I would be adding to it and making corrections as necessary. That’s why I encourage comment.

23. You reported, “It's all his own interpretations of everything.” Not so. The vast majority of data is from the literature.
24. re: the “rant” page, you reported, “Some of the rebuttals… are just flat-out ludicrous, and yet others are so obscure and pedantic that I have no idea whether or not they have a grain of truth to them.” Here’s where your help would be gratefully appreciated. Which rebuttals? Let’s talk about this.

25. “there is NO curriculum vitae on the site.” There is a reference back to the books on my advertising website, which also includes my resume – and the list of papers, which you mention later. There are no CVs on any wiki page or blog either.

26. The “second form” link doesn’t work back to That's an html bad link issue.

D.P. said...

27. You reported, “The most important and incendiary entry in his CV is not peer-reviewed however - it was a talk given by Peters at a pterosaur convention in Germany, and it's his core cited "source" for claiming that Pterosaurs are lizards not archosaurs based on Photoshop manipulation.”
Actually that tree is based on a set of well-resolved cladograms on display here:
and here:
All abstracts are peer-reviewed and either accepted or rejected. That one was accepted. And the word, “manipulation,” can be misleading, as most people associate that with putting one head on another body. I don’t do that. I enhance colors and contrast at most.

28. You reported, “I'm not sure any of his Photoshop methods would actually stand up to peer review.” Actually every paper I have ever published has been peer-reviewed and every one has had some DGS/Photoshop in it. Using photos and Photoshop is, perhaps, more widespread than you realize.

29. You reported, “if he'd stuck to painting dinosaurs and left the fossil analysis of squashed pterosaurs to the people who actually have studied the real fossils, he'd be a major player in paleo-art today.“ I’ve been to Europe 3x, China once, Kansas, Chicago, Berkeley, Austin, New York, Pittsburgh, all to see fossils. Longisquama and Sharovipteryx both came to St. Louis, where I live. I think the thing that really pisses the academics off is the fact that an amateur has seen things that they have overlooked. Yes, they, like you, have attacked my mistakes. And that’s good. But it’s not good to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I have documented my findings. The best argument would be to re-document those findings and arrive at a different conclusion, rather than cast aspersions.

30. You report with regard to, “It's just his illustrations and inferences that need fixing.” Please be specific and let me know. Let’s fix those together.

31. “heckling of Dr. Hone” Never intended to. Correcting errors, yes. Perhaps an over-reaction from a perceived threat. After all, if I’m right, he’s wrong on many topics.

32. re: Mike Taylor’s comments: The business about “Goodwin’s law” was another overreaction to my relating keeping Huehuecuetzpalli and fenestraurs out of cladograms that include pterosaurs to keeping African Americans out of the major leagues. There is and was no reason for it. Yet lizards and fenestrasaurs continue to be shut out ten years after they were shown to be more parsimonious sisters. Now with the discovery of a crescent-shaped coracoid, a pteroid and a prepubis in Cosesaurus and Sharovipteryx, there’s even more parsimony.

33. You queried regarding my book, “From the Beginning” – “admittedly HOW he decided which animals to put in the mammalian evolutionary sequence perplexes me to no end).” I had discussions with Jim Hopson and his team, primarily, who was thanked in the acknowledgments.

That covers it. Again, thank you for your kinder comments about my artwork. I hope this clears things up and helps to un-assassinate my character, which has really taken a beating both here and elsewhere. Please take me up on my request to correct the errors you found in And if possible, please forward your list of three archosaurs that demonstrate an increasing number of pterosaurian traits. I think we can resolve this issue rather quickly if you can do so.

Best regards,

Jorge W. Moreno-Bernal said...

I wonder what would happen if David Peters could actually review some of the pieces he has seen only in photographs. I also would like to see his inferrences tested again those of works such as Frey and coworkers, who used methods such as UV light and microscopic observations.

It would be nice if someone could test it on one or two specimens, just to show on a more clear basis how many (if not most, if not all*) of the alleged "soft tissues" of Peters are in fact, preservational or preparation artifacts.

*I would not be surprised at all if none of these "Petersian" structures represent real parts of the animals, but artifacts.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the worst things about "Reptile" is that it's hard to tell what can be trusted and what is David Peters being inane. The section on pterosaurs is clearly him being crazy (particularly how he talks about them being direct descendants of Longisquama).

Nima said...

@ Jorge: They are probably ALL artifacts. Just like the irregular blotches that some more "mainstream" pterosaur workers confuse for ankle-wing attachments. Peters also seems to invent many structures that aren't even clearly visible in the photographs.

@ Anonymous: Good point. Much of the site is very detailed, but Peters quotes obscure people and papers that I have never heard of in his support. there's a lot of material up there, but most of the illustrations are downright deformed, and don't look like anything approaching an accurate likeness of the living animal. There's perhaps one good point he makes in the entire site, the rest just reeks of wishful fantasy.

D.P. said...

Dave here again.

Just PLEASE provide an analysis that nests pteros with archosaurs while nesting Cosesaurus, Sharovipteryx and Longsiquama elsewhere and you'll gain a convert. Where IS that analysis??

Where are the detailed studies of the above taxa and their reconstructions? So far all I've seen published are cartoons from competing workers. Do cartoons trump detailed studies? Hmm? Is that what you really want?

Everyone has been encouraged to send in evidence to the contrary of anything I've presented. Nothing has come in. Absolutely nothing. Why snipe and whine here when you can go to the source and get the job done? That's how a real scientist would do it.

Lastly, for Nima and all those who think pterosaurs don't have wattles, please take a gander at Pterorhynchus here:

Don't have a heart attack. It's only hard evidence.

Boron said...

Today I accidentally encountered Peters' "Reptile Evolution" page and I immediately noticed some uncommon views on fossil reptile systematics (e.g. recognition of species long being considered junior synonyms). After I saw his phylogenetic hypothesis of reptiles which is really, really weird, I wondered whether the author is a real paleontologist (which I doubted) or a crackpot (which I presumed). That's how I found this blog entry that confirmed my doubts and presumptions, respectively. I think no person having basic experience in examining fossils and being roughly familiar with the principles of comparative anatomy can't take this guy serious.

affenjunge said...

Thanks a lot :)

I stumbled over the Peter's Reptile Evolution page (and his pterosaur heresies blog), when I was searching for illustrations of bipedal crocodiles. And while the illustrations themself looked quite nice, his ideas about reptile evolution did strike me as odd.

Good to get something about the background of it in this article.

Anonymous said...

wow what a great man sir David Peters no words for him

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Michael Hanson said...

I really find it odd how Peters takes offence at life restorations based on his own reconstructions and how he has been rather tight-lipped about what he himself thinks these creatures looked like in life. Whenever he has given a life restoration it seems to be by his own standards fifteen years out of date. His paintings of pterosaurs lack the frills, crests, babies, and misshapen heads and look strangely conventional, he has recently posted a bunch of sculptures of pterosaur skeletons and overall, except for the skull of his Jeholopterus, they too look rather conventional. When an inferred restoration is shown of that he implies pterosaurs looked like he calls it 'character assasination' and 'Bosch-looking', seriously, what's going on here?

Nima said...

@ Michael Hanson:

Well Mike, that's the rub with these things. When David Peters illustrates books, he goes mainstream because he wants to sell books. When Peters is online, he becomes a different person. At that point, he is trying to rewrite all of pterosaur science and "re-educate" everyone he can so that someday his newer/odder views will be sellable in print (hence the obvious attempt to rip off Bakker's advertising on the website "pterosaur heresies" - the difference is that Bakker could actually handle criticism and defend his views with solid evidence instead of lashing out with personal attacks). But Peters is not another Bakker, nor even another Greg Paul. The caliber of his research isn't even close, he just puts out unfathomably huge quantities of skeletals, many of which are of questionable accuracy and no less distorted or "Boschian" than the innocent tributes from all the "character assassins" out there.

The methods of this otherwise accomplished man seem totally out of place in the scientific world. Peters seems to consider Peters the only one qualified to interpret the work of Peters. Anyone else tries to do it, and they automatically become evil and out to get him. It's no wonder most scientists don't bother citing his few published papers - aside from their dubious scientific value, who wants the ensuing hassle? They will become "character assassins" in his mind yet despite scientists slamming each other's research and theories all the time, he's the only person taking every criticism personally and trying to flood academics' professional blogs with rants or ruin their careers if they so much as raise a peep of dissent. The funny thing is that none of my comments on this page (or any other blogs that had the guts to talk openly about David Peters' theories) are very long, yet he floods my pages with hundred-line diatribes in that degrading "You said this, you said that" courtroom tone that is precisely worded to bait sharper reactions out of people so that Peters can bring you down to his vindictive level and continue playing the victim. If anything one can say that he is talented in psychological warfare. Don't fall for the bait.

The moral of the story is this: if you want to get special treatment and always a "yes" answer, paleontology isn't the right profession for you. Politics or the priesthood might be. If you want to be taken seriously as a paleontologist (or ANY sort of scientist for that matter) you better be prepared for your theories to take a beating in peer review and from the wider scientific community. It's no place for the vain or thin-skinned. Real paleontologists and academics realize that, and most take it in stride. I never saw people insulting each other or getting testy at SVP, even guys like Horner and Currie who practically agree on nothing. The point of good science is to challenge theories, not to harass or hate their authors.

Michael Hanson said...

Looks like you are more or less correct, in his latest post he basically he admits he sees frills all over his pterosaurs, but refuses to feature them on his current reconstructions because he paranoically thinks 'If you notice such things, you run the risk of becoming ostracized by paleontologists.' So he is to some degree trying to 'sell' his ideas to his audience (whoever they are) and therefore is toning down what he would otherwise include and denying elsewhere that the frills are a part of his work.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about paleontology, but this article is pure rubbish.

If we found lion fossils, would we be able to tell that they had manes? No. If we kangaroo fossils, would we be able to tell that they had pouches? No, it would be instantly dismissed just like the theory that some sauropods had trunks. If we found flying squirrel fossils, we would never be able to tell that they had that membrane. How about the star nosed mole, what skeletal features give away its protuberances? None. Or how about a platypus skull?, you would probably never be able to get 2 "experts" to agree on what the animal looked like. What about a moray eel with its alien jaws? "Experts" would literally cut off their own heads rather than admit that yes, it has a second pair of jaws in its throat. If we found peacock fossils, would we be able to tell that they had those tail feathers? Probably not, unless we had a perfectly preserved specimen. The idea would be aggressively dismissed, and unless perfect evidence of intact feathers was found, "experts" would claim that they are pieces of whatever foreign body that just happened to intertwine with the fossil. Look at the ostrich. It can bend its neck at impossible angles, angles that would instantly be deemed as ridiculous by "experts" had the ostrich been a prehistoric animal only known through fossils. If frilled lizards didn't exist today and we found a pristine fossilized skeleton, I bet anything that "experts" would claim that those 2 bones are HURR DURR NOT INDICATIVE OF A FRILL AND THEY ARE JUST STRAY BONES WEDGED INTO THE LOWER JAW AND EVERY EXTINCT ANIMAL WAS STERILE LOOKING AND SANDBLASTED BECAUSE I AM SCIENCE!

Do I need to remind you that the only reason we know that Ichthyosaurus reproduces through live birth is that we found a fossil of a mother ejecting a baby through her cloaca? All the other reasons invoked are products of the same baseless speculation that "experts" accuse David Peters of doing.

What I'm trying to say is, when studying extinct animals you shouldn't close any doors and deal in dogmatic absolutes. It's quite the opposite of scientific and nothing good can ever come out of it. Look at how many stupid and close minded debates there are about things like Dimetrodon's sail or T-Rex's feeding habits. "Experts" never once stopping to think that maybe the former performed a plethora of functions and maybe the latter does not have to be black and white, much like modern animals like lions and hyenas indicate.

Tristan Scott said...

I think the point is not that one should accept anything as dogma, and ignore new ideas, but that any good science is testable, repeatable, and open to rational discussion, not just something vague and untested that a single person throws out there, and then uses as a club to beat any critical reviewers. The idea of endothermic dinosaurs was considered radical at one time, but there was evidence, repeatable, testable evidence to back up the theories, and more such evidence came to light over the years. Those who put forth the theories were willing to discuss their views, and show how they came to their conclusions. In this case, Mr. Peters doesn't do what a professional scientist should do; he doesn't discuss, he argues. He doesn't debate, he attacks. And his "evidence" is unrepeatable and unacceptably vague, and flies in the face of the research that has been done by dozens of professionals over a period of 150+ years, with actual contact with the specimens. you can't try a killer with nothing more than photos of the crime scene, and you can't establish radical new theories about Pterosaurs from Photoshop etchings.

Anonymous said...

The problem is, the previous anonymous, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be speculative. This article means that David Peters is trolling people and using useless evidence. No. It doesn't mean that kangaroos didn't have pouches. David peters is saying kangaroos had feet on their heads just because the fossil is preserved like that. It could have been ripped apart.

Anonymous said...

I'm a palaeoartist, trained in zoology, not palaeontology, and no expert in pterosaurs by any measure, although I love illustrating them. Having stumbled on David Peters' wattled creations in the past, I had a good laugh and dismissed them. Such superfluous loose tissue on the anterior part of a flying organism is clearly ridiculous and would make flight near-impossible. But his wing reconstruction is a different matter. Karl Zittel's Rhamphorhynchus wing has always intrigued me - where was all the baggy tissue that should have been present behind the elbow? Zittel's own reconstruction shows a pterosaur wing almost identical to Peters', a 'bird wing'. Marsh's contemporaneous reconstruction shows a 'bat wing'. The fossil itself would indicate Zittel was correct. I feel very uncomfortable with introducing excuses like shrinkage to support one idea, rather than suggest another idea that doesn't need an excuse - that's hardly Occam's Razor. I agree that much of Peter's work is fantasy, but looking at all available wing membrane material that I can find (yes, admittedly as photos), the mass of posterior elbow tissue that supposedly should be present just never seems to be there. Superfluous loose tissue on flying creatures, whether as wattles, or in the armpits, strikes me as highly improbable.

Anonymous said...

"Current thinking (all the latest from Nesbitt and Irmis) nest pterosaurs as derived from Proterochampsids and Parasuchians in cladograms, but then there's nothing else in the literature to support that. I trust that no one contributing comments to this post can do so either. "

This is categorically false. Nesbitt's matrix finds no such thing. You have completely misunderstood the tree.

Nesbitt's tree is not even controversial in regards to historical discussions of reptile relationships, with the exception of parasuchians possibly being stem-archosaurs.

Ridwan P said...

i know my question isnt directly related to the topic here but i really wanna know the answer fromall you guys. How do we know for sure whether a trait evolved thru natural selection or thru genetic drift ? pls reply to

Anonymous said...

Traits evolve due to natural selection (and sexual selection) applied to individual genetic drifts. Each animal (myself included) is but a 'snapshot' (one, current variant) of a perpetually changing lineage.
Sometimes, evolution seems to happen very rapidly, as is the case when a significantly advantageous morphology occurs. But, usually the process of evolution is very slow.

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Vera Mihailovich said...

Fossils and signs from history are stored in the rocks of the Earth so its imperative to understand how the Earth came about and understand that the world is dynamic and fluid. The world has undergone change constantly, for there wasn’t always seven continents.

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