Date: August 30, 2016
Source: University of Southampton
A rare small-bodied pterosaur, a flying reptile from the Late Cretaceous period approximately 77 million years ago, is the first of its kind to have been discovered on the west coast of North America.
Pterosaurs are the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight.
The specimen is unusual as most pterosaurs from the Late Cretaceous were much larger with wingspans of between four and eleven metres (the biggest being as large as a giraffe, with a wingspan of a small plane), whereas this new specimen had a wingspan of only 1.5 metres.
The fossils of this animal are the first associated remains of a small pterosaur from this time, comprising a humerus, dorsal vertebrae (including three fused notarial vertebrae) and other fragments. They are the first to be positively identified from British Columbia, Canada and have been identified as belonging to an azhdarchoid pterosaur, a group of short-winged and toothless flying reptiles which dominated the final phase of pterosaur evolution.
Previous studies suggest that the Late Cretaceous skies were only occupied by much larger pterosaur species and birds, but this new finding, which is reported in the Royal Society journal Open Science, provides crucial information about the diversity and success of Late Cretaceous pterosaurs.
Lead author of the study Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone, a Palaeobiology PhD Student at the University of Southampton, said: "This new pterosaur is exciting because it suggests that small pterosaurs were present all the way until the end of the Cretaceous, and weren't outcompeted by birds. The hollow bones of pterosaurs are notoriously poorly preserved, and larger animals seem to be preferentially preserved in similarly aged Late Cretaceous ecosystems of North America. This suggests that a small pterosaur would very rarely be preserved, but not necessarily that they didn't exist."