Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Dino-Riders Pterodactyl by Tyco

Quick Facts
1987 Dino-Riders Pterodactyl action figure
Size: 20cm (wingspan)
Scale: 1:3 or 1:4
Sculpted by: unknown
Produced by: Tyco

Pterodactylus antiquus has a special place in history as one of the first ever prehistoric reptiles to be subjected to scientific study. It's one of the best known pterosaurs, with many complete specimens known to science, and it ended up lending its name to the entire group of pterosaurs to which it belongs (Pterodactyloidea). In fact, "pterodactyl" has become a common nickname for all pterosaurs, thanks in part to the fact that nearly all pterosaurs were considered species of Pterodactylus during the 19th century.

Despite the importance of pterodactyls, very few toy versions of them have been produced (in fact I don't know of any other than this one and one made by Starlux - if you know of more, let me know in the comments!). Sure, there are lots and lots (and LOTS) of toys out there claiming to be "pterodactyls", but the vast majority of these are actually other species of pterosaur, most often Pteranodon. A lot of older "pterodactyl" toys from the 1950s - 1980s are weird hybrids of the Pterosaurs' Greatest Hits, like pteranodonts with teeth, or with Rhamphorhynchus tails. But almost none of them are the classic, the original, the one and only pterodactyl. That's probably not a coincidence or a mistake - like the "velociraptors" in Jurassic Park that were really Deinonychus, pterodactyls have a cool name attached to a somewhat wimpy animal. Most pterodactyl fossils are tiny, with wingspans of only a few feet. Larger specimens do exist, but these skin-winged critters don't seem to have grown any bigger than a large seagull. Personally, I think that's part of their charm - I can't help but picture flocks of them squabbling over dead squids any time I watch gulls at the beach. But in terms of raw awesomeness, they certainly can't compete with 20 foot beasts like Pteranodon.

One of the very few pterodactyl toys that's actually a REAL pterodactyl is this one from Tyco. Produced in 1987 and released in 1988 at part of the Dino-Riders line, this pterodactyl came with a 2" action figure and a little hang glider accessory, but I won't be worrying about those here. Despite it's age, this is still one of my favorite pterosaur toys and holds up reasonably well even today. Let's get into some details...

The Head

The snout of the Tyco pterodactyl is appropriately long and tapered. Pterodactyls did have beaks, but they were at the jaw tips and were hooked, and would have blended in with the many small teeth that surrounded them, making the jaws slender but slightly blunt when closed. The snout is nice and straight, a characteristic feature of Pterodactylus antiquus. The cranium is much higher than the snout and is rounded, just as it should be. Even the nostril is just about where it should be, halfway down the length of the skull. The eye is an appropriate size and I can easily imagine it fitting, with a decent sized sclerotic ring, in the space provided by the orbital opening. Pterodactylus is well known for being a toothy pterosaur, and no teeth are visible here. Of course, the jaws are sculpted shut, and there isn't necessarily any reason to think the teeth would be visible like in crocodiles, rather than slotting into the soft tissue of the head, either in some kind of "lip"-like structure, or simply an overhanging ridge of keratinized skin.
So let's talk about that crest.
The Tyco pterodactyl has a fairly tall, triangular crest very similar to the one also given to their version of Quetzalcoatlus released the same year. And, in fact, the crest on this figure isn't too far off. Real pterodactyl fossils, especially the larger ones, have been preserved with faint traces of crests. While none are quite as tall as the one on the toy, they're the same basic shape. It's not hard to imagine a more mature adult specimen sporting a taller version of the same basic crest type. The crest is not only the right shape, but it's in the right spot, between the eye and the nostril.
The sculpt on the head is a little soft and totally smooth, with few details. We do have specimens of the related pterosaur Aerodactylus that show tiny scales covering the crest and parts of the face, but these are so minute they probably wouldn't be visible or worth sculpting at this scale anyway. 
So, overall, does the head of this figure match what we know about real pterodactyls? Perhaps shockingly, yes - which is more than can be said for most pterodactyl toys!

The Body

The body proportions of pterodactyls vary a bit due to size, so I'm going to assume that this is a mid- to large-sized individual due to the extreme development of the cranial crest discussed above. That would put it somewhere in the size range of the historically important holotype specimen, and the largest known specimen (BMMS 7, pictured in the full skull diagram above, from Bennett, 2013). Since BMMS 7 is only a skull, and since the holotype is one of my favorite fossils of all time, I'll be using the holotype to examine the proportions of the Tyco figure. 
In the holotype, the head, the neck, and the body including the tail are all about equal in length. So, at first glance, the neck seems a little too short. But we also know from several specimens including BSP 1929 I 18 (pictured above right, also from Bennett, 2013) that the neck was enveloped in a pretty significant amount of soft tissue that would have hidden much of its natural curve. With that internal curvature taken into account, the three main body segments of the Tyco figure do look to be correctly proportioned relative to each other.
The neck itself is sculpted a little too smoothly. The length of the famous feathery "mane" of specimens now referred to Aerodactylus have been greatly exaggerated in some art (the "long" fibers are only long relative to the shorter ones elsewhere on the body, and are only a few millimeters each). This would translate to only the faintest of peach fuzz in life, but a modern sculptor would probably put some kind texture here to indicate that. Of course, this is a case of Science Marches On, since as far as I know, the "mane" of Pterodactylus was unknown in the mid-1980s (one had been reported for Scaphognathus in 1831, but that fact was mostly ignored and/or forgotten by the late 20th century). The fuzz on the rest of the body is actually present, and since these shorter fibers were sculpted but the neck remains bare, this aspect of the reconstruction can be considered out of date. Or not - the "maned" specimen is actually Aerodactylus, and we don't technically have any skin impressions from Pterodactylus itself. So even though long neck fibers seem to be fairly common among pterosaurs, well... who knows what variation may have existed?
The torso is well proportioned and the breast is appropriately deep to anchor the flight muscles. And the dorsal surface is covered in hints of fuzz. Fuzz! Can we all pause for a second and appreciate the fact that a mass-market pterosaur toy in the mid-1980s is actually fuzzy? Yeah, this was not controversial at the time. But feathered dinosaurs are not controversial now, and yet how many scaly ones STILL come out every year? In the '80s, a fuzzy pterosaur would have been unheard of to most people buying this toy.
There's no fuzz or texture on the underside of the neck and torso, but there isn't any fuzz preserved on those areas in Aerodactylus either so I'm going to check that box as accurate.

The Limbs

I was about to write a whole paragraph here about how the legs are way too short. Look how short they are in the photos! But then something occurred to me that made my go back and examine the figure more carefully and actually, I think the legs are around the right size for the holotype specimen. They do look short but there's something you need to know about this figure.
It's a Kevin Padian pterosaur.
What's a Kevin Padian pterosaur?

Above: Classic '80s style Kevin Padian pterosaurs, by David Peters, from A Gallery of Dinosaurs and Other Early Reptiles, 1989.
Well, you see, there is a long and contentious debate (that isn't even quite settled yet today) about the posture of pterosaur legs, their walking ability/posture, and where those flaps of wing skin attach. Most people throughout the history of pterosaur science have suspected that they had bat-like wings, the wing skin (patagia) connecting to the ankles and involving the hind limbs in the flight apparatus. A few people, most notably Kevin Padian, have argued that pterosaurs had patagia that attached to the knee, hip, or tail, freeing up the legs and making them bird-like bipeds. Most evidence, from the very few fossils that preserve wing attachment, to footprints which show most pterosaurs were quadrupeds, suggest the bat-like version is correct. But the 1980s was the height of the Dinosaur Renaissance, and what was old but correct was not as exciting as new and possibly wrong. So a lot of artists began to reconstruct pterosaurs Padian-style.
What does this have to do with leg length? The legs are tucked! Like a bird in flight, the legs of the Tyco pterodactyl are folded up against the body. Furthermore, the femora seem to be encased in the body wall like many modern birds. If most of the visible leg is the tibia, which should be about half the length of the head, and the metatarsals, which should be about half the length of the tibia, the proportions work out a little better, but are still a tad too short.
How do the wings stack up? In the pterodactyl holotype, the length from the elbow to the hand is a little less than the length of the skull. This seems to be done correctly in the Tyco figure, and the upper arms also seem about right though it's harder to compare them since they'd be partly embedded in musculature and the body wall. The wing finger should be about half again the length of the skull, so it's a little on the short side, but not too far off. The figure has a small propatagium, but it probably should be more noticeable and start further up the wrist. I don't think you'd necessarily be able to see the pteroid bone in life, but they didn't leave much room for one to exist here.
The wing membranes are narrow up to about the level of the elbow, where they curve inwards towards the body and broaden, just as they do in really well-preserved pterosaur fossils. Of course, as discussed above, the wing attachment is Padian-style, with the membranes terminating at the hip/tail and not involving the legs at all. This is most likely wrong, but should be appreciated as a product of its time. The top and bottom surfaces of the wings are covered in perpendicular striations similar to the texture of the fuzz on the body, but these are probably meant to depict actinofibrils, the shape-shifting muscle fibers embedded in all pterosaur wings.  In reality, it's doubtful that the actinofibrils would be this visible externally, and they'd be positioned differently in the outer wing. But hey, points for trying.
The fingers are posed in a classing monster-movie claw and are all the same length. This is inaccurate, as they'd be held flush with the wing in flight, and even if spread in this way, we now know they were webbed. 

Sculpt & Color

Brown! Brown, brown, and beige. I know it's the '80s, but come on guys! Pterosaurs likely had excellent color vision and were highly visual creatures. As shown by its crest, the pterodactyl was no exception. Tyco would later put out a repainted version of this figure, with splashes of bright orange, as a mail-order premium for the Dino-Riders Fan Club (I was literally a card-carrying member, but I never got the orange pterodactyl. What a failure). This was one of the most inexpensive figures in the Dino-Riders line, so it's not surprising that its basic paint job doesn't quite hold up to its larger counterparts, especially in series 2.
The sculpt, too, is quite basic and light on detail/texture, save for a few key and visible parts like the wings. Once again, these earlier and cheaper figures definitely saved on costs by using minimalist sculpts and simple paint operations. The plastic is hard, but not as hard as some of the other figures in this series (oh, the many times I snapped off a Deinonychus tail...). The wings are so thin that they feel downright rubbery. I guess that was so kids could make them flap; unlike the larger pterosaur figures, this one didn't have mechanized flapping action. In fact it's probably the only Dino-Riders figure with no articulation at all, unless you count the tiny rubber Rhamphorhynchus figures that came with Brontosaurus.


Unlike the museum-based lines of the same time period from Safari and Invicta, Tyco's Dino-Riders were first and foremost action figures, and didn't stick to any particular scale. The pterodactyl dwarfs its included human figure, who is meant to use the beast as a hang-glider. The human figure is named "Llad", so I'm assuming based on the fact that he's shorter than the other figures he's a young kid (it's been a few decades since I watched the cartoon series). Still, I'd guesstimate that compared to him, the pterodactyl has a wingspan of 10-12 feet. Of course, if we used the included figures for scale, the Tyco Tyrannosaurus would be about 80 feet tall, so let's ignore that for now. 
The figure measures 20cm from wingtip to wingtip, so in straight-line measurements its wingspan would be slightly more than that. Its head is 4cm long. The skull of the largest known pterodactyl (BMMS 7, pictured above) is incomplete, but would have been about 18cm long. That puts the figure at about 1:4 or 1:5 scale. Scaling the toy to specific measurements proves that the wings are indeed a little too short, but only by a few centimeters.
Of course, in all the comparisons of proportions above, I used the holotype specimen, not BMMS 7. So how does the toy scale with the holotype? The skull of the holotype (BSP AS I 739) is 11cm long. If the Tyco figure is thought of as the holotype, it's scale is about 1:3.


It's a shame that, as far as I know, this toy produced in 1987 is still the best representation of a pterodactyl ever made for commercial release. (Please, correct me if I'm wrong here!) The proportions are very good, with just minor issues, like too-short legs and slightly too-short wings. The sculpt is very basic and lacks a lot of detail, but the renaissance-era vibe of the figure is pretty neat overall. The most glaring inaccuracies, like the Padian-style wing attachment and leg position, are historically valuable snapshots of their time, rather than sloppy design.
  • Accuracy: 3.5/5 - mostly correct proportions and with very slightly shrink-wrapped wings, hurt mainly by the outdated wing attachment.
  • History: 5/5 - very accurate for its time, based on then-current hypothesis of pterosaur posture. Bonus points for being a rare representation of a historically important species.
  • Sculpt: 2/5 - Very basic sculpt with minimal detail leaves a lot to be desired.
  • Paint Job: 1/5 - as basic as you can get, 2-3 colors only, and way too dull.
  • Aesthetics: 4/5 - despite the shortcomings of the paint job and sculpt, the overall presentation and posture of the figure, with its subtle striations and gently bent wings, is very nice. If only some company would do something just like this, but with a better sculpt and paint job, it would be perfect.
Final note: Some people have contacted me with memories of this toy being Quetzalcoatlus. It was... later! After the Dino-Riders toy line ended, many of the figures were re-released without armor under the Smithsonian Collection label. For some reason, the pterodactyl was re-released under the name Quetzalcoatlus (it doesn't exactly make a great azhdarchid... but I guess back then, nobody knew any better...?). The Dino-Riders Quetzalcoatlus, in turn, was released as Pterodactylus. Tyco or the Smithsonian opted to remove the crest from it. I guess Bakker's totally correct interpretation of the literature on pterosaur soft tissue was a little too crazy. The Smithsonian also polished all the feathers off of the Dino-Riders Struthiomimus, so they're 0 for 2 as far as "corrections" go!


  1. Hey, I had that! And most of the other Dino-Riders toys. The cranial crest was pure chance, since that wasn't known until the 2000s. They no doubt just copied the Quetzalcoatlus crest since a naked head looked too boring. Note they didn't foresee the occipital lappet though. Also, you're giving the designers way too much credit to assume they knew about actinofibrils. The texture matches the rest of the dorsal surface, so was probably just the result of designing a fuzzy pterosaur. As for the Padian legs, I'm also skeptical given their shape. Finally, regarding a brown shorebird... skuas...

    1. Yeah, the actinofibrils could be a coincidence, though they were known by the late 80s weren't they? As for the crest, it definitely was known, because as Bennett 2013 noted, Doderlein included it in his description of the P. cormoranus holotype in 1929. Doederlein doesn't seem to have noticed the occiptial lappet in the same specimen, however, which explains its absence.

    2. Actinofibrils were named in 1987 in a German paper. You can go back a bit further for the idea, e.g. Campos et al. had a conference abstract about it in 1984. But to think toy makers were researching either option in the pre-internet age is just silly. Similarly, the 2013 paper was necessary because the 1929 observation had been lost to history. Do you honestly think anyone at Tyco found the 1929 issue of Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften,
      Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Abteilung at the library to justify a crest in Pterodactylus? The idea is just absurd. Remember, this was the toy line that had Brontosaurus and patterned their 'Ankylosaurus' off of Euoplocephalus. They weren't reading technical journals....

    3. I do agree that it would be absurd to argue Tyco designers were doing all this research. That's what Bakker was for. He was obviously (fairly heavily) involved in the design process as the consultant for the line. He quit over some inaccuracies the company refused to fix (insisting on using more well-known names for example, which is what happened to Euoplocephalus) and rejecting some of his more forward-thinking ideas (his base design for Stegosaurus was rejected and became Kentrosaurus). But his involvemnent is what makes me suspect at least some of this is more than just coincidence, because Bakker seems like the type who'd have been tuned in to any papers that made pterosaurs seem more dynamic and "hot-blooded". The combination of pycnofibres, crests, and Padian-style wing attachments all look very late-80s Bakkerian to me... Or it could of course just be a coincidence.