Tech & Science

Pterodactyls: New Species of Ancient Flying Reptile with 5-Foot Wingspan Discovered in Utah

Paleontologists have discovered the remains of a new species of pterosaur in the rugged desert of northeastern Utah, according to a study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The fossils date from the late Triassic Period (about 210 to 201 million years ago), meaning they represent one of the earliest known pterosaurs. The find casts new light on the evolutionary history of the reptiles, an international team of researchers says.

Pterosaurs, more commonly known as pterodactyls, are a group of extinct flying reptiles that roamed the skies for 160 million years from the late Triassic right up until the end of the Cretaceous Period (145 to 66 million years ago). Close cousins of dinosaurs, although not related, they were the first creatures after insects to evolve into powered flight—meaning they were able to flap their wings to generate lift rather than simply leap or glide.

We know that about dozens of species did so, ranging in size from as large as an F-16 fighter jet to as small as a paper airplane, according to the American Museum of Natural History. However, pterosaur fossils from the Triassic are rare, and all known specimens come from what used to be coastal environments in what is now Europe and Greenland.

On the other hand, the newly discovered specimen, named Caelestiventus hanseni, lived in a desert environment. Significantly, it predates all known desert-dwelling pterosaurs by 65 million years, according to the researchers, suggesting that even earlier forms of the reptile could live in varied environments and were widely distributed.

“Triassic pterosaurs are rare—only 30 specimens [have been] found to date, including single bones,” Fabio M. Dalla Vecchia, an author of the study from Spain’s Institut Català de Paleontologia, told Newsweek. “Desert-dwelling pterosaurs are extremely rare. Before the discovery of this pterosaur, the oldest desert-dwelling pterosaur was from rocks of Cretaceous age, about 130 million years old. Caelestiventus is about 205 to 210 million years old.”

The pterosaurs’ environmental flexibility may have helped the reptiles survive an extinction event at the end of the Triassic that is thought to have wiped out some 76 percent of all marine and terrestrial species and enabled the dinosaurs to become the dominant land creatures, the researchers suggest.

Caelestiventus was large compared with other known early pterosaurs—the specimen in question has a nearly 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) wingspan despite not being fully grown. It may also have had a throat pouch, similar to modern pelicans, the researchers say, pointing to a thin bone ridge on the lower jaw as evidence.

“The 18-centimeter-long skull [7 inches] was deep and narrow, and the nostrils were enormous,” Brigham Young University’s Brooks Britt, lead author of the study, told Newsweek. “It sported fangs at the front of the jaws, and behind them were large, triangular teeth on upper jaws and minute teeth on the lower jaws. [It] was a flying predator. We suspect its food was small terrestrial vertebrates.”

The site where the exceptionally preserved fossil was found, known as Saints and Sinners, was first discovered by paleontologists George Engelmann, from the University of Nebraska Omaha, and Dan Chure, who has recently retired from Dinosaur National Monument. The pair noticed delicate bones in the rock while pulling themselves over a sandstone ledge adjacent to a precarious cliff. This find led to further excavations at the site that lasted several years.

CAELESTIVENTUS2-FINAL-JPEG Artist's illustration of Caelestiventus hanseni. Michael Skrepnick (dinosaursinart.com)​

“The fossil bones [were] so abundant that we cut out blocks of the sandstone weighing over 100 kilos [220 pounds] with concrete-cutting chainsaws,” Britt said. “In the laboratory, the blocks [were] carefully excavated. One block contained five 40-centimer [16-inch] crocodylomorphs [a large group of reptiles that includes crocodiles and alligators], among which the bones of Caelestiventus was discovered. In other words, Caelestiventus was discovered in laboratory, not in the field.”

The bones were in such good condition that the researchers were able to identify features that cannot be seen in other pterosaurs. The fossils from most other specimens tend to have been severely flattened or crushed over time.

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