Ancient flying pterosaurs mapped on Google Earth (Wired UK)

An artist’s impression of
a pterosaur. We repeat: this is not a real pterosaur.


“Please wait while the specimens load,” flashes the database,
before the Google Maps plugin is splattered with winged lizards.
But these are no ordinary lizards — they all date from the
Cretaceous period and the database that holds them is part of a web
app that allows you to search through all the pterosaurs that have
ever been found.

Named PteroTerra,
the database has catalogued nearly 1,300 known specimens of
pterosaur, mapping them according to their origins across the
world. The hope is that the map will help researchers discover
trends in the evolution and diversity of the ancient creatures.
Pterosaurs were the first flying vertebrates and were alive between
228 million and 60 million years ago.

Along with the name and geographic location of each fossilised
specimen, PteroTerra also contains information regarding
classification, geologic age and formation, rock type, wingspan and
“proposed diet and housing institution”.

The database has been built using the Ruby on Rails web
framework and Google Earth, and has been constructed primarily
using first-hand research — reading papers and visiting museums to
discover information about the specimens. It has now been published
publicly so that anyone can search for specimens based on keywords
and create groups of pterosaurs based on characteristics. These
groups have be downloaded from the database and then uploaded to
Google Earth.

The technology has been described in a paper in the journal Historical Biology and in the abstract
the authors state there hope that “the use and continuous updating
of PteroTerra will provide pterosaurologists and other
paleontologists with a central location for storing and obtaining
information about particular pterosaur specimens, as well as a way
for researchers to observe pterosaur patterns on a worldwide
scale.” They add that the principles used to design the system
could very easily be applied to other fields of study.

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