Tag Archives: vertebrae

Assembling Tapejara wellnhoferi

This weekend I traveled to Uberaba, MG, Brazil, where I installed this replica of a Tapejara wellnhoferi. I traveled with more than 190 individual unassembled bones. Arriving there I had three days and a half to put them together and assemble a Tapejara wellnhoferi pterosaur in a flying position. All the 196 bones are in this 16×23 cm box.

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The skeleton was installed in a museum which is part of a cultural and scientific complex in the town of Peirópolis. It will be displayed in one of the museums in the complex.

Peirópolis is a small town located 20 km away from the city of Uberaba (pop. 300 000) in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The whole area is situated over a geological formation from the late Cretaceous and contains several paleontological sites where hundreds of fossils, mostly reptiles, were found.  The Peiropolis Dinosaur Museum (Museu de Dinosauros) is part of a scientific and cultural complex (Complexo Cultural e Científico de Peirópolis – CCCP) which also includes a research center (Centro de Pesquisas Paleontológicas Llewellyn Ivor Price) and another smaller museum installed in an old train station. The complex is administered by the Federal University of Triângulo Mineiro (UFTM).

The smaller museum contains only species which were found locally; another contains replicas and fossils from other parts of the country. This Tapejara is the first pterosaur that will be on display in the complex.

Besides installing the Tapejara, I also gave a small workshop showing how I researched, planned and created the individual bones from sheets of foam, demonstrating the techniques and materials used. In the end, I recycled a small tray by cutting two pieces to make a Tapejara humerus.

Assembly took me 3 and 1/2 days. It took long because I used silicone rubber to attach the bones together and its only completely dry in 24 hours (before that it gets gradually stronger, but it may tear easily.) I also used part of the first day to photograph each of the bones and weigh them. The whole collection weighs only 300 grams!

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But before turning those bones into a Tapejara, I decided to turn them into a fossil first. This is a representation of the limestone slab which contains one of the most complete specimens: SMNK PAL 1137 (see “Eck et al, 2011, On the osteology of Tapejara wellnhoferi …”). The actual slab contains bones from three individuals, but I only have one so there are some bones missing. Anyway, here is SMNK PAL 1137 assembled with replicas of bones from one Tapejara:


I started with the head (I used some of these pictures to illustrate the previous post). The neurocranium is attached dorsally to the upper crest (with silicone rubber “cartilage”, but shown below with pins) and at the anterior part of the orbits through the lacrimal bone (shown detached in the next two pictures, and attached with silicone rubber and two pins in the third).

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The spine has a long rubber tube acting as a medulla. Here is the Tapejara with an assembled skull and spine (cervicals, dorsals, sacrum and tail). The quadrate bones, that articulate with the jaw, are shown below beside the skull and were not attached yet.

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The next step is the assembly of the pelvis. Each bone was attached with silicone rubber, keeping it firmly in place while allowing some elasticity between the bones. Silicone rubber acts like cartilage. Below are some photos of the complete pelvis showing the sacrum, gastralia, pre-pubis, pubis, ischium and ilium (preacetabular and postsacetabular processes).

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I was hosted by friends in Uberaba, and hanged the skeleton every night in my bedroom window. This is my window after the first day.

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On Saturday I returned to the museum and assembled the feet, legs, part of the wings and part of the pectoral girdle. Here’s a pair of Tapejara feet. The bones are firmly attached but they retain some flexibility. You can pass your fingers between Tapejara’s toes.

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My table of bones.

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Here are some views of the skull after I attached the mandible. The pins are holding it closed because I only added silicone rubber to the joints. When the silicone dries, the weight of the lower jaw should keep the mouth slightly open.

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It’s easier to work on the ribs by hanging the skeleton. I attached practically all the ribs and the sternum (through four pairs of sternal ribs).

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And this is my window after day 2.

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On day 3 I occupied the kitchen at my friends’ place, and finally finished the pectoral girdle, connecting the vertebral ribs to the sternal ribs, and to the sternum and gastralia.

I didn’t use cartilagenous connections from the posterior vertebral ribs to the gastralia, nor did I leave them floating in the air. I used thin sternal ribs as placeholders since I had some spare ones. My intention was to remove them later, when the abdomen had dried and was strong enough, and replace them with pure cartilage to connect to the gastralia, but I forgot to do so. It’s not completely inaccurate the way it is (no fossil evidence against it – but perhaps the “floating ribs” should be smaller). Anyway, I can consider fixing that when I return to Uberaba and have an opportunity to review the replica.

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Here is a view from the front showing the scapulocoracoid.

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The limbs are almost done. This photo was taken just before connecting the carpals and fingers.

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Oh, and this is Samuel – a Felis catus. He is always with me in the kitchen observing the Tapejara wellnhoferi. It probably looks like a big tasty bird for him.

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Here is the finished Tapejara body. As you can see I used “sternal” ribs to connect gastralia (the last three ribs) to the vertebral ribs.

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There is not enough space on this table for a pterosaur.

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Almost done. Now some fingers.

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A pterosaur hand. That long fourth dactylus is the pterus 🙂

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And this is the end of day 3. All the small parts assembled into larger ones. I arrived in town with 196 parts, now I have six parts hanging in my window. I couldn’t assemble it all because it woundn’t  fit in the car.

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Monday morning. Tapejara for breakfast.

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This is my host Regis. He is a musician and plays the guitar in a heavy metal band. This time, instead of a guitar, he holds a Tapejara. And the cat on the couch is one of the daughters of Samuel the cat.

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Samuel was watching the skeleton on the kitchen table a while ago.

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Finally assembling the Tapejara at the Peiropolis Dinosaur Museum. It will stay in this room (which contains several skeletons that are not yet on display) until it is installed. Here I hanged the body, head, a leg and a wing.

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And this is the final result.

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Hmmm… It might need some chiropractic therapy for that scoliosis.

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Looks good, but the posture is still not right.

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That’s not a good posture for the neck!

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It should be facing down slightly. Like this.

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Now it’s much better.

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And that’s it! Now there is a Tapejara in the Peiropolis Museum. It will still receive a coating of matte varnish, and then it will be displayed in the main hall of the museum, near the big dinosaurs. If you ever go to Uberaba, check it out!

As in any project like this, there are some adjustments that can still be made, improvements in posture and eventual fixes that might have to be done in the future. If I have the opportunity to do so, I will review the replica next time I am in Uberaba. Some improvements that may be done very easily include 1) straightening the gastralia axis (it’s making a curved line), 2) reducing slightly the curvature of the back (it should be curved, but perhaps it was too much – that might be causing the curvature in the gastralia axis), and 3) removing sternal ribs connected to gastralia (or maybe simply trimming them).

This was the Imaginary Pterosaur #7: Tapejara wellnhoferi, the first one I made for a museum. It was commissioned work and I started it two months ago, working on it about half of that time, traveling with it and working on it in different cities. Although I made all the bones by myself, I had help from many people. First of all I would like to thank the paleoartist Rodolfo Nogueira for introducing me to the director of the Peirópolis Cultural and Scientific Complex, Vicente Antunes, who had told him that he wished to have a pterosaur on display in the museum; the staff at the museum and UFTM, specially the researchers Thiago Marinho and Agustin Martinelli, who first contacted me and led the process that allowed me the opportunity to create this replica for the museum. Several other researchers helped me with photographic sources, articles and paleontological information: Hebert Bruno Campos, Felipe Pinheiro, and specially Brian Andres who gave me access to many photographs and measurements that were critical to the accuracy of this replica. Finally I must thank the family who hosted me in Uberaba: Alípio, Regis, Ludmila and Lucia (and their many cats) for their fantastic hospitality, for dedicating time and effort to make my stay as comfortable as possible, for driving me to Peiropolis and back (40km!) and even letting me occupy their kitchen table during three days, turning it into a pterosaur assembly lab! 

Now I will stop making pterosaurs for about a month and a half because I will travel to Europe (Spain, Portugal, England and Russia). When I return, I will probably start Imaginary Pterosaur #8.

I will publish one more post on Tapejara with statistics (weight, dimensions) and links to pictures of all the parts.

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Tapejara: caudal vertebrae

None of the Tapejara specimens I used as sources had a tail, so I used as a source Anhanguera piscator, which seems to be the most closely related pterosaur with well preserved caudal vertebrae. The source is Kellner & Tomida 2000, but I used photos of the tail I had made for Tupuxuara and scaled it to Tapejara proportions.

I made ten individual caudal vertebrae. This number is speculative, as is the shape of the last caudal vertebra. Anhanguera’s tail has dorsally projecting processes on the first four or five vertebrae, which change to lower anterodorsally projecting ones which get smaller and smaller as you get closer to the end of the tail.

Here are some photos. Yes, I made all the vertebrae hollow except for the last one. I thinned the foam a bit with fire.

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These are the final vertebrae.

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Tapejara’s dorsal vertebrae

Here is a picture of Tapejara compared to an unknown thalassodromid comparing skull and neck. 2013-07-16 12.45.53

But this post is about the vertebrae that come after the neck: the dorsal vertebrae. The first four to seven of these vertebrae is fused in most adult pterosaurs to support the pectoral girdle and is called the notarium. There is no fossil evidence that this occurred in Tapejaras, but none of the specimens used are considered “full grown adult” either (I’m referring to the ones that were published). Some decisions that affected the dorsals also involved the cervicals, so I might also talk a bit about them here.

I had some trouble with my sources. I used the same ones I had used for the cervicals, but several images published in the article about SMNK PAL 1137 had the wrong scales, so the sizes didn’t match. Not even the reconstructions using the bones from the same specimen matched, and the descriptions confused me more than they helped, so I had to rely on other sources. MN 6588-V has several dorsal vertebra but it’s not really a tapejara, and it also has an incompatible scale: if I match the size of the cervical vertebra in that specimen, all the others become too small.

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So I decided to trust the scale I was originally using (from IMCF 1061) which unfortunately has no dorsal vertebrae, and to estimate the size based on Tupuxuara. The problem is that Tupuxuara’s cervical vertebrae are proportionally shorter, and so is the pelvis, so maybe the Tapejara has a narrower and longer body than the Tupuxuara, or maybe it just has a proportionally longer neck. I don’t know.

I checked other reconstructions (drawings and sculptures), but they seem to either have fewer cervicals, or identical cervicals. I observed that both in Tupuxuara and Tapejara (Iwaki specimens) there are some longer cervicals and others which are shorter and taller. I am not sure about the order, but in the (unpublished) Iwaki specimen, they were numbered, and the two shorter ones were cervicals no. 3 and 5 (not counting Atlas/Axis). I don’t know how accurate that ordering is since there is no publication, but I assume they either knew before preparation or they fit somehow, and since that’s the best information I have, I followed that same order in Tapejara.

I decided to not use any reconstructions as sources except my own. I used the four dorsal vertebrae from SMNK PAL 1137 as sources ignoring their  (incorrect) scale, adding broken and missing parts, and tried to fit them with the eighth cervical vertebra, using the Tupuxuara notarium as a reference but making each vertebra a little wider. After trying out three different prototypes, I could finally start making a final version.

I used foam strips for the processes and thicker foam for the vertebra’s body.

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After fitting the processes together, I separated the vertebrae to add details (processes) to each one.

Here are some views of the vertebrae after molding with fire, but before adding modeling resin.

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And here some more views after resin and staining with coffee.

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These are the dorsals that are part of the pectoral girdle, and which will articulate with the scapula. The exact number of dorsals after them before the sacrum seems to be unknown. Most reconstructions draw six notarium vertebrae + three to four free ones + two to three pelvic dorsals before the sacrum (that means 5 – 7 more dorsals), but other authors mention 10, 12. It seems that there is not enough evidence to be sure. I am also not sure about their shape. Do they get smaller, narrower, wider?

I don’t mind reading dozens of publications. It’s great. They revealed that many of my assumptions were bad theories, but they usually don’t offer me a solution. They open a discussion. And so, the more I read, the harder it is to make decisions, and I also reach the point where paleontologists disagree. It’s a fantastic discussion, really, but I have a deadline, so I have to make some choices. If they are bad, I will try to fix it before I deliver the skeleton.

So I decided to make 9 more dorsals (a total of 15). Three will be fused to the pelvic girdle, and the other six will be free. This is a first 3D sketch (the body and the spine of six dorsals).


After adding the processes and splitting.


After acrylic resin and staining.

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They are not really finished: I’m using them as prototypes so I can continue the work. Later I might reshape them, cut some excess foam, make them thinner, narrower, or even throw them away and make new ones. For now they just need to be functional.

I’m trying to find reliable information to make the pelvis. The only sources I have are SMNK PAL 1137 (just pelvis, no sacrum, one or two views of each bone and no more), and a side view from MN 6588-V. I would be nice to have other views. I’ve been trying to obtain permission from the Iwaki museum so I can have access to all Tapejara photos (I only have some), but so far I haven’t received any response. I might have to continue without them, unfortunately.

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Tapejara cervical vertebrae

with neck 1

I got a bit behind schedule this week with some other projects but I was able to recover half of the time this weekend and get the cervicals done. Now Tapejara has a neck, as shown in the picture above.

I started gathering all the data I had which included cervicals from 4 different specimens. The SMNK specimen is smaller than the others. I used the IMCF specimen as a reference, double checked by comparing the size of the cervical vertebra in the AMNH specimen. I also used Tupuxuara vertebrae (from IMCF 1052) scaled to the same size as the Tapejara because of its better resolution and because it has a complete collection. But the IMCF, SMNK and AMNH vertebrae are all proportionally a bit longer and narrower than the Tupuxuara vertebrae, so I made considered that as well. Here I placed all of them in scale.


I started with some prototyping and made hollow cervicals (as I did before with Tupuxuara). This time I used 2mm XPS foam (instead of the 5mm foam I used in Tupuxuara) since the Tapejara vertebrae are less than half the size of Tupuxuara vertebrae.

prototype 1 prototype 2

After assembling, gluing, shaping, adding texture and molding with a lighter, we have a prototyped vertebra.

prototype 3

From those prototypes, I cut out the foam in this pattern for vertebrae 1, 2 and 4 (3 and 5 have a slightly different shape, a bit taller and shorter).

final prototype

Here are the five vertebrae, after assembly and shaping with a lighter.

cervical rod

After finishing all 8 (or 9 if the fused Axis/Atlas are considered 2), I made a spinal cavity in each one, and crossed it with a wooden skewer. Here is the Tapejara with a stiff neck.

stiff neck

As I did with Tupuxuara, I used a rubber tube (4mm diameter) as a spinal cord.


Here are the Axis/Atlas and seven other cervical vertebrae connected with the tubular medulla.

cervicals connected

The last two vertebrae are slightly shorter.

last cervicals

The neck is assembled connecting the vertebrae. It retains some flexibility (less to the sides, more up or down).


And finally the Tapejara with the neck in place. It’s still not possible to attach it, since the skull still lacks several posterior bones.

curved neck

Tomorrow Tapejara will have some thoracic dorsal vertebrae.

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Tupuxuara: the tail

There are not many preserved pterosaur tails. I had initially planned to make Tupuxuara’s tail from Pteranodon until a friend told me to look for the tail of Anhanguera piscator. So again my source is Anhanguera (Kellner & Tomida, 2000). I estimated its size,  printed a guide and made eleven caudal vertebrae.

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These are the finished vertebrae.

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To assemble the tail I used a plastic “spinal chord” (made from a plastic hanger) inserted in the tube that I used as the chord inside the pelvis. For now I just fit the vertebrae there. Later I will also attach them together with silicone rubber discs.

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And here is the tail in place. It probably has more than 11 vertebrae. Pteranodon’s tail has two very long vertebrae at the ent, but since this is not even Tupuxuara’s own tail, I decided to leave it as is.

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Tupuxuara: the pelvis, sacrum and dorsal vertebrae

The specimen I have been using as a source (IMNH 1052, Iwaki Museum, Tokyo) has no pelvis, sacrum or any other dorsal vertebrae. I already made all the bones from that source. The sources I used for this pelvis were kindly sent to me by Mark Witton, and belong to a related species (possibly a Tupuxuara).

My sources were four views and a diagram from where I calculated the size of the pelvis relative to the other bones. The right view was the best, so I used it to sketch the pelvis bones. I sketched the sacrum from the dorsal view. There was also a posterior view, which I used later.


I cut the parts slightly larger so they could be molded.


First, I assembled the sacrum gluing the two halves together (by the spinal crest).


Then some trimming, and let it dry.


I was in a hurry to see what the pterosaur would look like with a pelvis, so I pinned the parts together and let the sacrum dry hanging on its “spinal chord”.


Then I added some foam to the other side, to shape the sacrum, and compared it to a diagram I made from the sources.


While that was drying, I worked on the sacral and dorsal vertebrae, carving a spine from thick foam. Here I lined up the sixth thoracic vertebra (the last one from the notarium), three free lumbar (dorsal) vertebrae, and seven fused vertebrae.



I tested it before attaching the parts.


I had no source for the three lumbar vertebrae, so I invented them based on the others.


Here are the vertebrae lined up.


And here is the first one that articulates with the pelvis in place.


As a spinal chord I am using plastic tubes of different widths. I insert the thin ones into the wide ones. There is a spinal chord for the cervicals, for the notarium and for the pelvis. The tail vertebra will be mounted on a thin rigid plastic spinal chord, which will be inserted in the thinner tube (the white one in the picture below).


Time to attach the pelvis. First one side.


Then the other. I always twist and fold the foam before attaching.


Some parts need more work. Here I am trying to shape the pubis while keeping the ischium in place.


The two halves are not enough to provide all the three-dimensional details I need for the pelvis, so I made some “masks” with 5 mm foam which will allow some shaping.


I also added some foam at the sides of the ilium to shape a small iliac crest (extending from each side of the sacrum). From the pictures I don’t know the exact shape of the ilium (I have no frontal view, and it’s partially damaged), so I looked at some other pterosaurs and chose something which matched the picture. This is the pelvis seen from the inside after most of the foam shaping.


Another view.


And here’s a dorsal view.


Now the resin coating, coffee staining, and we’re done. Here are three views of the pelvis. This is the left side.


This is a dorsal view.


And this is a ventral view.


The pelvis is a complex set of bones. I don’t know if I achieved in making an accurate one. I did my best with only three views. I’m not really sure if I should have closed the ischium. If I get more data in the future I will fix any mistakes.

Here you can see it in other angles.






Now finally I can attach the legs. Here are two pictures of the pelvis in place with the femora attached.


from behind

This is what it looks like when you are underneath a pterosaur skeleton.


It saw us and it’s coming this way!

almost done

What’s next? I don’t know. As you can see from the pictures above, some bones are connected with rubber bands: I still didn’t make any carpals. I will have to invent carpals, fingers, toes, and tails. I have none of them. They are small and simple bones, so there is a good chance that I might finish this skeleton tomorrow.

I already have some sources but I am still interested in any new ones. If I have more information I will be able to make a more accurate model. I am interested in pictures or drawings of feet, tails or hands of a Tupuxuara, Thalassodromidae, or even a related species. If you have any, send me an email!

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Tupuxuara: thoracic vertebrae and the notarium, part 2


I finished the first two thoracic vertebrae, which completes the notarium. This is vertebra no. 2 before covering with arcylic resin.


Here it is after the resin and coffee stains, in place with vertebra no. 1 which is still under construction.


I had a good frontal view of vertebra no. 1, since it is the first one in the notarium. Here I am working on the rib (which is hollow).


Vertebra no. 1 required a lot of work, and adjustments. These are views from the front and back before adding the layer of resin.



Here are views of the six thoracic vertebrae disconnected. This is the rear view.


And this is the front view.


I won’t permanently connect the bones yet. This is a dorsal view of the notarium:


And a ventral view:


And here are some pictures of the notarium connected to the neck.





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