The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar / Chuang Zhao
Janet Fang 11 Sep 2014, 18:43

A newly discovered pterosaur from Early Cretaceous deposits in China looks like a cross between a pelican and a mountain banshee from the movie Avatar. Named Ikrandraco avatar, their skulls suggest that the flying reptiles ate like some modern seabirds, skimming the water for food with the help of throat pouches. The work was published in Scientific Reports this week. 

Working with 120-million-year-old sediment from the Aptian Jiufotang Formation in northeastern China, an international team led by Xiaolin Wang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Alexander Kellner from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro identified an usual, never-before-seen pterosaur from two sets of flattened fossils. 

The two partial skeletons revealed a very low, elongated skull and a well-developed crest on the lower jaw bone with a hook-shaped projection on the backend of the keel. It looks like a bottle opener (pictured, a and b), and it’s never been seen before in pterosaurs. The team believes the blade-like bony crest served as an anchor for soft tissue, such as a throat sac -- like the stretchy pouches of pelicans. These seabirds catch fish and other prey near the water surface by expanding their throat pouches, draining the water before swallowing.

Because of this dentary (or mandibular) crest, the researchers propose a distinct foraging habitat: Ikrandraco may have occasionally foraged for food by flying low over water bodies and scooping up prey near the surface using some attached, extensible skin. 

However, the skim-feeding behavior probably wasn’t used extensively since the new pterosaurs don’t appear to have extensive adaptions for this feeding practice. A 2007 study found that it would be an unlikely feeding strategy among pterosaurs: By measuring the drag that would be experienced by the bills, they found that skim-feeding would be too energetically costly for flying reptiles, compared to modern skimmer birds. “It would be a 'limited' skimmer," Kellner tells National Geographic. "But this is the best explanation for such a deep crest limited to the lower jaw."

Ikrandraco had 21 small teeth on each side of its upper jaw and 19 pairs in the lower jaw. It likely had a wingspan of 1.5 meters. The new genus name comes from “ikran,” which is the fictional Na’vi word for mountain banshees from Avatar. The flying creatures from the movie were depicted with a similarly well-developed crest under the chin. The blockbuster is also where the new species name comes from. And “draco” is Latin meaning “dragon.” Here’s the colorful panoramic reconstruction of Ikrandraco’s habitat:

Images: Chuang Zhao (artist reconstructions), X. Wang et al., (mandible comparison)

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