Tag Archives: pterosaur

Police-seized fossils in Brazil belong to exceptionally preserved flying reptile

Artist impression of Tupandactylus navigans. Credit: Victor Beccari.

In 2013, police raided a storehouse at Santos Harbour in São Paulo where they found a huge stash of fossils belonging to more than 3,000 specimens. Inside one of the many limestone slabs, researchers in Brazil found the most complete fossils ever seen of an eccentric species of pterosaur that flew the sky during the Early Cretaceous. The nearly complete skeleton helps fill in the gaps in our knowledge about this elusive flying reptile.

The specimen retrieved from the police raid was sent, along with thousands of other fossils, to the University of São Paulo, where they fell under the watchful eye of vertebrate paleontologist Victor Beccari, then only an undergraduate student.

“The fossil gave me this emotion of awe when I first saw it, and at times I felt like I was way over my head with such an exceptionally preserved specimen,” Beccari told ZME Science.

The fossils belong to Tupandactylus navigans, a pterosaur known for its elaborate and colorful head crests. Although many taperjarids have been found across Brazil before, the vast majority of these fossils only preserved the skull. The newly described specimen, however, is almost fully intact, including most of the skeleton and remnants of soft tissue alongside the bones.

Beccari and colleagues performed CT scans of the specimen, allowing them to build an accurate 3D model of the pterosaur that, on the surface, was heavily obscured by sediment. This not only revealed the morphological features of the pterosaur without disturbing the fossils themselves but also allowed the paleontologist to continue work on the specimen while Beccari left for a master’s in Lisbon, Portugal.

The exquisitely preserved fossils, which originally come from the Crato Formation in Chapada do Araripe, Northeastern Brazil, reveal new stunning details about how this up-until-now mysterious subgroup of flying reptiles looked and foraged during the Cretaceous.

One of their most striking features was their long neck (over 50% of the axial skeleton length) and weirdly proportionate limbs. Together with the huge cranial crest that could grow over 40 cm (15 inches) tall, Beccari and colleagues believe the animal may have had difficulties performing long-distance flights.

These findings suggest that T. navigans likely employed a terrestrial foraging lifestyle. However, the specimen preserves all the adaptations to power flight, and would be able to use it to escape predators and possibly for short distance flights (such as for peacocks). The fossils also suggest that T. navigans and another pterosaur from Brazil, Tupandactylus imperator, may represent a single species.

“Right now we cannot be certain, but new specimens preserving the post-cranium of T. imperator could solve this issue. We also managed to compare this specimen with another fossil that was published in 2006, which showed us that this fossil would represent a post-cranial material of Tupandactylus,” Beccari said.

Next, the paleontologists from Brazil plan to further tackle the ecomorphology of these tapejarids, including what they ate and how they lived. “To do so, we’ll use the 3D data from this work in biomechanical studies to understand more about the stress in the skull bones and bite force of this animal,” Beccari added.

The study was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Scientists trace origins of flight with pterosaur lost precursor

A high flying Pteranodon, a genus of pterosaur. Creidt: Elenarts / Adobe Stock.

Pterosaurs were the very first vertebrates to evolve powered flight nearly 230 million years ago. Previously, only insects were capable of flying. However, the origin of pterosaurs has always been wrapped in mystery since no major relative had been identified — until now.

In a new study published today in the journal Nature, paleontologists at Virginia Tech have described a group of “dinosaur precursors”, known as lagerpetids. According to the researchers, these are the closest relatives of pterosaurs, filling a gap in their evolutionary history that had been eluding scientists for the past 200 years.

‘Where do pterosaurs come from and how did they gain flight?’ is one of those ‘big’ questions that we know little about largely because pterosaurs appear in the fossil record in nearly their full form. We have known for decades that pterosaurs are dinosaur cousins, but there was little to fill in the gap between the two until recently – enter lagerptids,” Sterling Nesbitt, professor of geobiology at Department of Geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech and co-author of the new study, told ZME Science.

Artistic rendering of Dromomeron (foreground) and associated dinosaurs and relatives. Credit: Donna Braginetz.

The study is the culmination of 15 years of work by five research groups across six different countries and three continents — and it all came together thanks to the braincase of a lagerpetid, known as Dromomeron gregorii, which had been gathering dust in a drawer in the fossils collections of the University of Texas at Austin.

“The fossil was found in the late 1930s or early 1940s, and was sitting in the collection untouched until I recognized its potential for understanding lagerpetid skull structures. It was thrilling to find the partial skull,” Nesbitt said.

“Anytime we find out something new about a fossil is incredibly exciting. It’s even better when it’s something that was there all along. The Dromomeron fossils were collected by people in the Works Progress Administration nearly 80 years ago, so they weren’t scientists that were doing that work. They did an amazing job carefully collecting these tiny fossils, and they ended up being key for our study. Museum collections are vital for preserving specimens until all the right pieces come together to interpret them in a new way,” Michelle Stocker, assistant professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech and co-author of the study, told ZME Science.

Further investigation of the braincase showed that these reptiles had a fairly good sense of balance and were likely agile animals. Other numerous lagerpetid partial skeletons from the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Madagascar filled in critical gaps in the fossil records.

These fossils gave paleontologists confidence in their assessments of lagerpetids: small, wingless reptiles that lived across the supercontinent of Pangea during the Triassic, from 237 to 210 million years ago.

A partial skeleton of Lagerpeton (hips, leg, and vertebrae) from ~235 million years from Argentina. Credit: Virgina Tech.

“The fossils of lagerpetids and early pterosaurs are spread across the world (when they lived, the world was connected into Pangea) so it took time to see many of the fossils. One of the best aspects of this project was working with such an amazing group of scientists around the world – we came together to solve a long-standing problem,” Nesbitt said.

In order to reconstruct the brains and sensory systems of the lagerpetids, the researchers used micro-computed tomographic (μCT) scanning on the skulls included in the study. This technology enabled the team to generate 3-D models of the brain and inner ear anatomy of these tiny, fragile fossils without having to make any cuts.

“We were able to make a lot of our interpretations because of the application of CT technology to look at the inner portions of these fossils in a non-destructive manner. Features of the brain and inner ear wouldn’t have been possible to see without either this technology or destroying the specimen to get the data, so this has been a groundbreaking way to ‘see inside’ delicate fossils,” Stocker said.

Strikingly, the researchers found that the lagerpetids had already evolved some of the neuroanatomical features that allowed the pterosaurs to fly. According to Nesbitt, pterosaurs and lagerpetids share numerous characteristics across their skeletons, especially in the jaws, teeth, and braincase.

Paleontologists used to think that pterosaurs are an example of accelerated evolution judging from their unique body plan. But the lagerpetids fossils show that pterosaurs weren’t special — we were just missing some important puzzle pieces.

Two giant Arambourgiania pterosaurs sharing a small theropod for dinner. Credit: Mark Witton.

Some questions still remain, though. Chief among them is where are the lagerpetids wings? Perhaps they were only one or two steps away — only the discovery of new transitional fossils may help shed more light.

“Pterosaurs are fascinating because they are the first group of vertebrates to achieve flight. How and when they did that has always been a mystery, and it’s something that required both existing fossils in museum collections and fieldwork to find new fossils in order to finally decipher that story,” Stocker said.

“Our research group is focused on the animals and ecosystems in the Triassic Period, and we’re so excited to get back out in the field and travel to museums as soon as is safe. Understanding the early evolution of pterosaurs is just one of the many exciting projects our students are pursuing in the Triassic. It’s important for both our students and the public to understand how important paleontology is for understanding and appreciating life on our planet, and also to understand how vital museums and museum collections are for facilitating that understanding. We should all take care of these representations of our shared evolutionary history,” she added.

“We will keep unlocking the mysteries of the origin of dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and crocodile-like animals, particularly in the Triassic Period,” Nesbitt said.

Fossil Friday: ancient shark bones turn out to be the teeth of a new species of flying dinosaur

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have made a lucky discovery in the collections of the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum at Brighton: a new species of pterosaur.

The fossils as seen from different angles. Scale bar represents 10 mm. Image credits Author links open overlay Roy E. Smith et al., (2020), Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

The fossils have been part of these collections for almost 100 years now, being first uncovered between 1851 and 1900. They were found at the height of phosphate mining activity in the English Fens area. As was regularly the practice among workmen there at the time, they quietly sold any fossils they found to collectors for some extra money.

Before we judge them too harshly, it pays to keep in mind that they had a direct hand to play in the discovery of a new species, even if unwittingly. Since their discovery, the fossils were assumed to have belonged to a species of shark. However, the work of University of Portsmouth Ph.D. student Roy Smith revealed that, in fact, they belonged to a new species of pterosaur.

Sharkosaur

Smith was examining (what we believed to be) the shark fin spines found in the fens when he noticed that they weren’t spines at all. They definitely looked the part, at least superficially, but there were also some details that didn’t fit the bill. Unfortunately, they were just teeth (connected to a bit of beak), so we don’t have enough material to describe the species it belonged to.

“One such feature are tiny little holes where nerves come to the surface and are used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs. Shark fin spines do not have these, but the early paleontologists clearly missed these features,” he explains. “Two of the specimens discovered can be identified as a pterosaur called Ornithostoma, but one additional specimen is clearly distinct and represents a new species. It is a palaeontological mystery.”

“Unfortunately, this specimen is too fragmentary to be the basis for naming the new species. Sadly, it is doubtful if any more remains of this pterosaur will be discovered, as there are no longer any exposures of the rock from which the fossils came. But I’m hopeful that other museum collections may contain more examples, and as soon as the Covid restrictions are lifted I will continue my search.”

Smith’s supervisor, Professor Dave Martill, explains that the material we do have “simply differs from Ornithostoma [a pterodactyl lineage] in subtle ways”, similarly to how “a great white egret might differ from a heron”. He adds that it’s unlikely that the animal had a significantly different body structure to other pterodactyls, but that it likely diverged most in areas such as “color, call, and behavior than in the skeleton”. Still, he describes the findings as “tantalizing”.

“Pterosaurs with these types of beaks are better known at the time period from North Africa, so it would be reasonable to assume a likeness to the North African Alanqa”, he adds. “This is extremely exciting to have discovered this mystery pterosaur right here in the UK.”

Part of the significance of the work is finding hints of a new species, the two researchers say. But they’re also valuable in showcasing how re-examining dusty museum collections for old material we assume was already identified can help us make whole new discoveries.

The paper “Edentulous pterosaurs from the Cambridge Greensand (Cretaceous) of eastern England with a review of Ornithostoma Seeley, 1871” has been published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Artist impression of Daohugou pterosaur showing four different types of feathers covering the head, neck, body, and wings. Credit: Yuan Zhang.

Scientists make pterosaur discovery that pushes back origin of feather evolution by 70 million years

Artist impression of Daohugou pterosaur showing four different types of feathers covering the head, neck, body, and wings. Credit: Yuan Zhang.

Artist impression of Daohugou pterosaur showing four different types of feathers covering the head, neck, body, and wings. Credit: Yuan Zhang.

From the peacock’s flamboyant plumage to the outlandish Birds of Paradise, feathers come in a surprising diversity of colors and forms. However, feathers are much older than birds, and perhaps even older than dinosaurs themselves — the ancestors of birds. Excavations in Mongolia have revealed a pterosaur specimen that seems to have had four kinds of feathers, an extraordinary discovery that pushes back the evolution of feathers by 70 million years.

Pterosaurs were highly successful flying reptiles that dominated the sky and lived side by side with dinosaurs, from 230 million to 66 million years ago. The creatures, which were neither birds nor dinosaurs, evolved on a separate branch of the reptile family and were the first animals after insects to develop powered flight.

Scientists had always known that pterosaurs had a furry coating made of pycnofibers, which are basically hairy fibers. But a new study performed by an international team of scientists shows that at least some pterosaurs had feathers — four types of feathers to boot: simple filaments (hairs), filaments in bundles, filaments with a tuft halfway down, and down feathers. What’s more, the analysis was even able to resolve fine details of melanosomes, which suggest the Daohugou pterosaur’s feathers had a ginger color.

The four feather types: filaments, filament bunches, tufted filament, down feather. Credit: Zixiao Yang.

The four feather types: filaments, filament bunches, tufted filament, down feather. Credit: Zixiao Yang.

The pterosaur specimens were excavated from the Daohugou Formation, in Inner Mongolia, and were then examined with high-powered microscopes that can image very fine structures.

“Some critics have suggested that actually there is only one simple type of pycnofibre, but our studies show the different feather types are real.”

“We focused on clear areas where the feathers did not overlap and where we could see their structure clearly. They even show fine details of melanosomes, which may have given the fluffy feathers a ginger color,” said Maria McNamara of University College Cork and co-author of the new study.

Anatomically-speaking, the pterosaur feathers aren’t at all different from those seen in modern birds and some dinosaur groups. The different coverings are likely to have played functional roles in heat regulation, sensing, signaling, and aerodynamics.

Modern birds have two types of more advanced feathers that are employed for powered flight and body smoothing, consisting of contour feathers with a hollow quill and barbs down both sides. The other feather types, monofilaments and down feathers, are much more widely seen across not only birds but also theropod dinosaurs (the ancestors of birds).

Since there are no anatomical differences between the pterosaur fibers and the feathers of birds and dinosaurs, the researchers concluded that they all must share an evolutionary origin — and that was about 250 million years ago.

Timeline of feather evolution. Credit: : Baoyu Jiang, Michael Benton et al./Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Timeline of feather evolution. Credit: : Baoyu Jiang, Michael Benton et al./Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Around this time, life was recovering from the devastating end-Permian mass extinction and land vertebrates, including the ancestors of dinosaurs, had switched gait from sprawling to upright and even acquired some degree of warm-bloodedness.

“The mammal ancestors by then had hair, so likely the pterosaurs, dinosaurs and relatives had also acquired feathers to help insulate them,” co-author Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences said in a statement.

“The hunt for feathers in fossils is heating up and finding their functions in such early forms is imperative. It can rewrite our understanding of a major revolution in life on Earth during the Triassic, and also our understanding of the genomic regulation of feathers, scales, and hairs in the skin.”

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution

An artist's impression of a newly discovered pterosaur species. Credit: Michael W. Skrepnick.

Scientists unearth oldest pterosaur ever — perhaps the first flying vertebrate on Earth

An artist's impression of a newly discovered pterosaur species. Credit: Michael W. Skrepnick.

An artist’s impression of a newly discovered pterosaur species. Credit: Michael W. Skrepnick.

Beneath the dusty soil of northeastern Utah, paleontologists have discovered the fossilized remains of a 200-million-year-old pterosaur. Neither dinosaurs nor birds, these were the first creatures with a backbone to fly on their own.

The newly identified species called Caelestiventus hanseni, which is Latin for “heavenly wind”, had a respectable wing-span of 1.5 meters and 112 teeth, including fang-like spikes that stuck out near the snout. Most early pterosaurs were midgets compared to the size of this specimen. Interestingly, the lower jaw’s configuration suggests that the creature had a pelican-like pouch, with which it might have scooped up fish and small terrestrial prey such as reptiles.

All of the specimen’s remains are still encased in sandstone but thanks to modern CAT-scan technology, scientists were able to generate breathtaking 3-D images and models of each of the pterosaur’s bones.

The pterodactyl’s older cousin

Triassic pterosaurs are extraordinarily rare, an extraordinary find doubled down by the fact that the fossils are remarkably well-preserved. The remains include a nearly intact skull — showing sides of the face and the complete roof of the skull (braincase included) — and also a part of the wing, researchers reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. 

The wings are, in fact, skin membranes that were extended by a fourth digit on the pterosaur’s forelimbs. These wings would have been folded vertically when the creature wasn’t flying, using all four limbs to move about the ground.

A 3D-printed skull of the newly discovered species. Credit: Nate Edwards, Brigham Young University.

A 3D-printed skull of the newly discovered species. Credit: Nate Edwards, Brigham Young University.

Another view of the 3-D printed skull. Credit: Nate Edwards, Brigham Young University.

Another view of the 3-D printed skull. Credit: Nate Edwards, Brigham Young University.

Before C. hanseni was discovered by the research team led by Brooks Britt, a geologist at Brigham Young University, only 30 or so Triassic pterodactyl specimens had been found anywhere on Earth. What’s more, most of them were described based on a single bone, on average.

“They are delicately framed animals that are built for flying,” Britt told AFP in a statement.

Most pterosaur specimens have been found in the Alps but C. hanseni is the first such creature unearthed from the deserts. The rocks in which the fossils are encased were part of an oasis in the middle of a two-million square kilometer (775,000 square miles) desert. In times of drought, many animals, including pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and crocs, were drawn to the pond. So far, as many as 18,000 bones and fragments belonging to dozens of animals have been identified at the site.

Together, all of these fossils are providing valuable new insights into the beginning of pterosaurs, suggesting these formed a far more diverse group than previously thought.

Pterosaur.

Largest pterosaur jaw ever found, recognized three decades after discovery in Transylvania

Three decades after being discovered, the largest pterosaur jawbone ever found has now been officially recognized.

Pterosaur.

Reconstruction of an (unrelated) pterosaur.
Image credits Sebastian Ganso.

Although the partial mandible itself is a mere 7.4 inches (18.8 centimeters) long, it suggests that the whole jawbone likely measured between 37 and 43 inches (94 and 110 cm) during the animal’s life, the researchers write.

Why the long face?

The jaw would be “more than three times the size of the complete, 290-millimeter-long  holotype mandible of Bakonydraco,” a closely-related pterosaur, the team explains.

The jawbone fossil was first unearthed by study co-author Dan Grigorescu, a geologist at the University of Bucharest, Romania, back in 1948. He made the discovery in the Hațeg Basin, near the village of Vặlioara in Transylvania, central Romania. However, his find wasn’t immediately recognized. In fact, the fossil wasn’t recognized as belonging to a pterosaur until 2011 when two of the paper’s co-authors, Mátyás Vremir, a geologist at the Transylvanian Museum Society and Gareth Dyke, a paleontologist at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, realized its importance, writes National Geographic.

During the pterosaur’s lifetime, a period known as the Cretaceous, the Hațeg Basin wasn’t actually a basin — it was an island. And, as oft happens with island-dwellers, the dinosaurs here evolved to be smaller than their counterparts on the mainland (a process known as ‘island dwarfism‘). The area, however, is also known for large pterosaurs (the other side of the coin, known as ‘island gigantism‘) such as Hatzegopteryx. This ancient flier is believed to have rivaled a modern giraffe in height, boasting a wingspan of up to 36 feet (10.9 meters) — and it’s not even the largest one.

Having a large jaw, however, does not make one the biggest pterosaur on the island. The animal — which has yet to be scientifically named — probably had a wingspan of over 26 feet (8 m) and likely belonged to a family of pterosaurs known as the Azhdarchids, the authors explain. This family of flying dinosaurs is generally thought to have had either long necks and thin skulls, or short necks and robust, hardy skulls.

The jawbone in this study likely belonged to “a robust, short-skulled azhdarchid,” the researchers conclude.

The paper “Partial mandible of a giant pterosaur from the uppermost Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of the Hațeg Basin, Romania” has been published in the journal Lethaia.

A lot of eggs in one basket: Paleontologists discover pterosaur egg bonanza

An extremely rare cache of over 200 eggs from pterosaurs from the Cretaceous era has been found by paleontologists in China. The finding, which researchers have described as “stellar” and “truly awesome” could allow researchers to understand the winged reptiles better than ever before.

Hundreds of pterosaur eggs and bones were found at the site. Image credits: Alexander Kellner/Museu Nacional/UFRJ.

Pterosaurs were flying reptiles which emerged during the Triassic period and lived until the Cretaceous. Although they weren’t related to the dinosaurs, they lived alongside them, shared certain similarities, and went extinct at about the same time as them. Along with bats and birds, pterosaurs are the only vertebrates to truly fly. While we’ve learned quite a bit about them from the fossil record, egg findings have been extremely scarce. Eggs are much more fragile than bones, and they require extremely specific conditions to properly fossilize. Up until now, only a handful of complete fossils have been recovered, and out of these, only six eggs are 3D — as in not flattened by millions of years of rock pressure.

The finding didn’t occur overnight. Researchers working in the Turpan-Hami Basin, in northwestern China, worked on uncovering the bones for ten years. The eggs were scattered around randomly and spanned a wide variety of sizes, indicating that this wasn’t a nest and that the eggs were probably laid by different animals, potentially from different species. It’s unclear how the eggs wound up together in such disarray; one possibility is that they were washed away together by a flood event. Unfortunately, this means that researchers don’t have access to important information, such as how many eggs female laid and how they were organized — but the sheer size of the discovery more than makes up for such shortcomings.

Example of fossilized pterosaur eggs. Credits: Alexander Kellner/Museu Nacional/UFRJ.

In total, paleontologists have discovered 215 eggs, with 16 of them containing embryonic remains of the pterosaur species Hamipterus tianshanensis. There may be even more of them, but scientists haven’t had time to properly analyze all the eggs, and CT scans are only partially useful.

“We want to find more eggs to make a much more detailed picture of embryonic development,” Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist with Laboratório de Sistemática e Tafonomia de Vertebrados Fósseis, told Newsweek. “So we are quite excited about that…. I’m quite certainly sure that there must be more embryos there.”

To make things even better, the fossil trove also includes skeletons from what appears to be all ages of pterosaur development — from hatchlings to adults. The discovery actually prompted the debate as to whether or not pterosaurs were capable of flying right after they were born. Since the hatchling fossils had much more developed hind legs than wings, this seems to indicate that the young were more inclined to walk around than fly.

“Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general … and probably needed some parental care,” the paper reads.

There’s still an ongoing debate about the validity of that theory, but one thing’s for sure: we’ve never had such a good view of how pterosaurs progressed from eggs to adulthood. It’s an embarrassment of riches, a once in a lifetime find.

“We learned a lot,” Kellner said. “For example, the bones associated with wings were less developed compared to the embryos development with their legs. So what we could learn from that? That most pterosaurs, when they hatched, they could walk, but they could not fly, so most likely they needed some parental care.”

H. tianshanensis was a giant flyer, with an estimated wingspan of 3.3 meters (11 feet). It had sharp teeth and a large crest running over its head, which probably made for quite a sight. It likely ate fish and lived in dry, sandy environments, where it buried its eggs on the shores of lakes and rivers (thus fitting with the idea of flowing water washing the eggs away). Pterosaurs were the first ever vertebrates to take to the skies — though why, how, and for how long they did this, remain unsolved mysteries. Even with such a rich find, the pterosaurs still manage to keep their secrets. But with paleontologists working more and more on the case, it only seems like only a matter of time now.

Journal Reference: Xiaolin Wang et al. Egg accumulation with 3D embryos provides insight into the life history of a pterosaur. DOI: 10.1126/science.aan2329.

Pterosaur

Newly found dwarf pterosaur species might re-write the ancient flying reptile’s evolutionary history

Pterosaur

Adorable artist illustration of the new tiny pterosaur species. Credit: Mark Witton

For millions of years, flying reptiles called pterodactyl or pterosaur ruled the skies. All across the globe, some 130 valid pterosaur genera have been identified so far, after nearly 200 years of research. Most of them were large, some boasting wingspans of 10 meters or more. But a newly discovered species of these ancient flying reptiles in Hornby Island, British Columbia was much smaller, closer to the size of an albatross or as tall as a housecat.

“It’s quite different from other animals we’ve studied. There hasn’t really been evidence before of small pterosaurs at this time period,” says Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone, the study’s lead author and a palaeobiologist at the University of Southampton, UK.

Two fragments were unearthed by paleontologists, including part of a humerus out of which Martin-Silverstone and colleagues carefully removed a slice, then put it under the microscope. This gave them an idea of the growth stage the individual was currently in. Coupled with the fact that the vertebrae were fused together, the scientists concluded the flying reptile was an adult and a small one too.

The flying reptile was as tall as a house cat. Credit: Mark Witton

The flying reptile was as tall as a house cat. Credit: Mark Witton

The bones of pterosaurs like those of birds are hollow, to promote lift. This also make them very hard to preserve, making pterosaur fossils hard to come by. From what we’ve found so far, scientists have come to the conclusion that the flying reptiles grew bigger and bigger in size with the eons. The biggest found so far was the size of a small plane and lived during the late Cretaceous period. Yet the newly found, and yet unnamed, pterosaur has a wingspan of only 1.5 meters although it lived 77 million years ago, also in the late Cretaceous.

Only a few fragments were found, so the British researchers can’t definitely say for sure that their specimen lived alongside larger pterosaurs or if it’s even a pterosaur. They do have some pretty solid hints to work with, though. The fused backbone suggests this wasn’t a bird. It wasn’t some marine dinosaur either, like a nyctosaur, because the arm bone lacks the distinctive hatchet-shaped crest, the paleontologists reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Read more: the tiny Chinese pterodactyl, and the Isle of Wight pterosaur.

Not too long after the giant asteroid impact from 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, pterosaurs also went extinct. Smaller species, like birds and mammals, survived and later occupied all the free ecological niches left in the wake of the mass extinction. Did this tiny pterosaur survive too, given its size? If not, it means that being small isn’t enough — there’s more to it.

“They have plenty of new material to determine that this is a new species of pterosaur,” says Michael Habib, a palaeontologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “If there’s one, there were probably others. Then we’d need to rethink what we previously thought about survivability of these little ones.”

Artist impression of the newly discovered Ikrandraco avatar. Image: Scientific Reports

Ancient flying reptile was a cross between dragon and pelican

Artist impression of the newly discovered  Ikrandraco avatar. Image: Scientific Reports

Artist impression of the newly discovered Ikrandraco avatar. Image: Scientific Reports

Paleontologists have discovered a new pterosaur species in 120-million-year-old rocks at two sites in northeastern China.  The flying reptile was dubbed Ikrandraco avatar, where draco is Latin for “dragon,” and Ikran are the pterosaurlike flying beasts depicted in the 2009 blockbuster Avatar.

The ancient reptile was described in paper published in the journal Scientific Reports as having a deep lower jaw with a a thin, crescent-shaped keel.  At the end of this bony keel, the researchers note a peculiar hook-shaped projection – an unique feature never before seen in any other pterosaur or vertebrate for that matter – that might have served as an anchor for soft tissue. These suggest that the Ikrandraco may have sported a pelicanlike throat pouch which the flying reptile would have used to carry fish gleaned from lakes or other waters.

I’m note sure how much of the artist representation from above is speculative art or factual representation. If the latter’s the case, then damn this Ikrandraco was one interesting beast!

 

 

 

Fossil Friday: Quetzalcoatlus, the world’s largest Pterosaur

Image via Wikipedia.

This giraffe-sized pterosaur was one of the largest known flying animals of all time. It had a wingspan of up to 40 feet (over 12 meters) and thrived towards the end of the Cretaceous. Quetzalcoatlus was named after a feathered lizard Aztec deity.

The nature of flight in Quetzalcoatlus and other giant azhdarchids was poorly understood until serious biomechanical studies were conducted in the 21st century, and there are still many things we don’t understand about them.

New crow sized pterosaur discovered by 5-year-old

While taking a walk with her parents on U.K.’s Isle of Wight (map) in 2008, Daisy Morris, who was then no more than 5 years old, came across blackened “bones sticking out of the sand”. Her family took the bones to paleontologist Martin Simpson at the University of Southampton, who, with the help of colleagues, identified it as a new species.

pterosaur

“In pterosaurs, certain parts of the skeleton, especially the skull and the pelvis, are really distinct between different [species],” explained Andrew Farke, a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, and editor of the new study in PLoS ONE.

The finding could actually bring more information on a relatively unknown group of pterosaurs. The newfound creature was a azhdarchoid which, “in my opinion, are among the most interesting of pterosaurs,” study co-author Darren Naish, also of Southampton University, said in a statement.

“All are from the Cretaceous, all are toothless, and many—perhaps all—were especially well adapted for life in terrestrial environments like woodlands, tropical forests, and floodplains,” he said.

From studying its skeleton, researchers concluded that Vectidraco daisymorrisae had a wingspan of about 2.5 feet (75 centimeters) and was just over a foot (35 centimeters) from snout to tail. It was basically a smaller cousin of Quetzalcoatlus, which had a wingspan of more than 30 feet (10 meters) and was one of the largest flying creatures to have ever lived.

new-species-pterosaur-daisy_65468_200x150But even being smaller, it was really good at flying, especially through dense forests. What’s interesting about this group is that they were also pretty good at walking, and even running on the ground.

Aside from discovering this new species, Daisy also inspired co-author Simpson to write a children’s book entitled Daisy and the Isle of Wight Dragon, which has a really cool theme:

“The story highlights the special relationship between amateurs, academics, and curators, in bringing these important finds to the attention of the scientific world,” Simpson said in a statement. “It also shows that, continuing a long tradition in paleontology, major discoveries can be made by amateurs—often by being in the right place at the right time.”

Via National Geographic

Missing flying reptile link found

200910132132512An international team of researchers from the University of Leicester (UK), and the Geological Institute, Beijing (China) managed to identify a new type of a flying reptile that can prove to be a crucial step in understanding evolution, or at least a big part of it. Pterosauria was the general name given for flying or gliding reptiles, and pterodactyls are the most famous example of them. They roamed and ruled the sky in the Jurassic area for more than 130 million years.

Researchers have already separated this group into two significantly different parts for a long time now: the primitive long-tailed forms and their more evolved, advanced short tail pterosaurs, some of which could reach amazing sizes. However, the gap between these two groups was so large that it seemed it could never be filled – until now.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, scientists described a newly found animal that fits exactly in the middle of that gap;the pterosaur was named Christened Darwinopterus, as an homage to the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th celebration of his publication that changed the world, On the origin of species.

Gaps in fossil records are really not that uncommon, because only a smart part of the animals that lived becomes fossilized, and a small part of that small part gets found by researchers. Our understanding of those animals, as a result is seriously impaired. Such was the case with the pterosaurs. However, more than 20 skeletons of Darwinopterus (some of them complete) were found earlier this week in North-Eastern China in rocks that were dated to approximately 160 million years old. It had rows of sharp teeth, a flexible neck and long jaws, all of which suggest that this animal (who was about as big as a crow) hunted other contemporary flying animals.

“Darwinopterus came as quite a shock to us” explained David Unwin part of the research team and based at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies. “We had always expected a gap-filler with typically intermediate features such as a moderately elongate tail – neither long nor short – but the strange thing about Darwinopterus is that it has a head and neck just like that of advanced pterosaurs, while the rest of the skeleton, including a very long tail, is identical to that of primitive forms”.

Dr Unwin added: “The geological age of Darwinopterus and bizarre combination of advanced and primitive features reveal a great deal about the evolution of advanced pterosaurs from their primitive ancestors. First, it was quick, with lots of big changes concentrated into a short period of time. Second, whole groups of features (termed modules by the researchers) that form important structures such as the skull, the neck, or the tail, seem to have evolved together. But, as Darwinopterus shows, not all these modules changed at the same time. The head and neck evolved first, followed later by the body, tail, wings and legs. It seems that natural selection was acting on and changing entire modules and not, as would normally be expected, just on single features such as the shape of the snout, or the form of a tooth. This supports the controversial idea of a relatively rapid “modular” form of evolution.

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However, this research doesn’t actually solve a problem, it just shows that it can be solved. In order to fill all the steps that need to be filled, researchers have a lot of work ahead of them. However, the importance of this should in no case be underestimated, because if solved, it wouldn’t only show how it works, but also how massive rapid evolution took place on a large scale.

Dr Unwin concludes200910132132511: “Frustratingly, these events, which are responsible for much of the variety of life that we see all around us, are only rarely recorded by fossils. Darwin was acutely aware of this, as he noted in the Origin of species, and hoped that one day fossils would help to fill these gaps. Darwinopterus is a small but important step in that direction.”