Everyone loves a winged lizard, right? No, I’m not talking about the unruly dragons from Game of Thrones in this case – I’m talking about pterosaurs, the “winged lizards” that lived in the age of the dinosaurs, from 228 to 66 million years ago. Good news, folks: the family is about to get a new addition. A new treasure trove of fossils in present-day Utah was announced at the recent annual gathering of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, which included a new pterosaur with a wingspan of only 1.3 meters (4.5 feet).
These fearsome ancient beasts could have wingspans ranging from 5 meters (16 feet) to a whopping 11 meters (36 feet). Although the wingspan of this new find would have made it the largest pterosaur when it lived 210 million years ago, it is certainly fairly puny when compared to its more gigantic cousins appearing later in the fossil record.
Its reptilian grin, however, was more impressive: it had 110 teeth, with four of them being 2.5 centimeters (1 inch)-long fangs. Its dentition is a strange mix, with a combination of the fangs and miniature teeth in each side of the lower jaws. This eccentric teeth pattern, although seeming odd, is not too dissimilar to the other pterosaurs that existed in the Triassic period, many of which had a mixture of strikingly different teeth shape and size combinations.
The fossil, buried in a Triassic oasis, was remarkably well preserved compared to most pterosaur remains. “The animals here likely died during a severe drought, and the sediments indicate their carcasses were buried when the rains returned to normal and the lake filled, with the lapping waves burying the bones with sand,” said Brooks Britt, an associate professor of geology at Brigham Young University in Utah and one of the authors of the study, in a statement.
Its large head and comparatively short wing span suggested that it did not soar over vast areas in the way a modern-day wandering albatross would, but would instead take short flights between treetops and cliffs, more like a hawk or a toucan. According to Britt, it likely fed on insects or land-dwelling animals, including a type of ancient crocodile ancestor called a crocodylomorph. Its specific prey may have been a slender, agile form that resembled a cross between a crocodile and a greyhound – a sphenosuchian, many fossils of which were also found at the cliff-side site in Utah.
“Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates capable of active flight,” Britt said. “This finding is further evidence that flight opens up a wide array of niches for occupation, in this case feeding on insects and small vertebrates that thrived along the shores of an oasis in the middle of a giant desert.”
The new pterosaur has yet to be named, but it will belong to its own genus and species. It will help fill the evolutionary blank space between the earlier, smaller pterosaurs and the gigantic ones that evolved later in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
It’s worth noting that these flying reptiles, in fact, didn’t evolve into modern-day birds, nor were they actual dinosaurs – they belonged to their own evolutionary group, the Pterosauria.