Remains of a tiny, toothless pterosaur have just been identified among a collection of fossils that date to 77 million years ago, a new study reports.
The cat-sized flying reptile, which soared in the skies during the Late Cretaceous period, suggests that at least some pterosaurs were very small and lived in the same ecosystems as birds. The findings are published in the Royal Society journal Open Science.
"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," lead author Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone, a doctoral student in paleobiology at the University of Southampton, said in a press release.
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"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," she added. "This suggests that a small pterosaur would very rarely be preserved, but not necessarily that they didn't exist."
Pterosaurs are the earliest animals with a backbone known to have evolved powered flight, and most that we know of were very large. The biggest was as large as a giraffe and had a wingspan the size of a small plane.
The newly found petite pterosaur, on the other hand, had a wingspan of only about 5 feet. Martin-Silverstone and her team identified it as an azhdarchoid pterosaur, which refers to a group of short-winged, toothless flying reptiles.
Its remains were found on Hornby Island in British Columbia in 2009 by a collector and volunteer from the Royal British Columbia Museum, who then donated them to the Museum. At the time, they were given to dinosaur expert Victoria Arbour. She, in turn, contacted Martin-Silverstone. The Museum later sent the remains to University of Portsmouth pterosaur expert Mark Witton and his team for further analysis.