What had a long narrow head filled with sharp pointy teeth, a 1.5-meter wingspan, and had already mastered the skies by the time dinosaurs dominated the ancient ecosystems? A newly described species of pterosaur, of course.
Fossils of pterosaurs – winged reptiles that lived up until the Cretaceous extinction event – have been found around the world by intrepid researchers and collectors. But specimens of the earliest lineages of this fascinating group, those dating back to the Triassic, are rare; only about 30 examples from modern-day Europe and Greenland have thus far been confirmed. Though it was suspected, based on scattered bone fragments, that these creatures also evolved in what is the now the US, no one had been able to prove this theory – until now.
Based on just a handful of stunningly well-preserved pieces of bone unearthed in northeastern Utah, the reconstructed pterosaur not only establishes the reptile order’s presence in the region but also proves that these creatures – the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight – adapted to live in a desert climate 65 million years earlier than previously believed. The species has been dubbed Caelestiventus hanseni; the genus name means "heavenly wind" in Latin and the species name is an homage to geologist Robin L. Hansen.
The far-from-complete specimen – a good portion of the skull, a jaw with teeth, a wing finger bone, and three indeterminate pieces – was embedded in a layer of sandstone at the famed Saints & Sinners Quarry fossil site that has been dated to the late Triassic. During this period, approximately 237 to 201 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangea was beginning to break apart into Gondwana and Laurasia, and the area that has since become the cheekily named quarry was then a lake oasis within a large sandy desert.
Rather than trying to pick delicate mineralized structures out of the rock, the team cut the slab from the ground and imaged the fossils within using an advanced CT scanner, “revealing details that cannot be discerned in the usually crushed and flattened skeletons of other early pterosaurs,” the team wrote in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
According to their analysis, with its 18-centimeters-long (0.18 meters) skull and approximately 1.5-meter (60-inch) wingspan, C. hanseni was also potentially the largest Triassic pterosaur.
"It was probably the biggest of its day. Among its peers, we have no evidence that any rival came close to that," lead author Brooks Britt told the BBC.
And making the new species even more intriguing, Brooks’ team notes that a curiously shaped protrusion on the jawbone could indicate that C. hanseni sported a throat pouch similar to those of modern birds. They speculate that the structure could have been used to store the pterosaurs’ prey before ingestion, or enhance vocal communication or visual signaling like flying Draco lizards.