A little more than 200 million years ago, a four-fanged pterosaur flew over the vast desert of Triassic Utah snagging other reptiles with its toothy mouth, until it met its untimely end on the banks of a dried-up oasis, new research finds.
The pterosaur had a massive wingspan of about 4.5 feet (1.3 meters) - about as wide as a 10-year-old child is tall - and sported a total of 110 teeth, four of them inch-long (2.5 centimeters) fangs, said study researcher Brooks Britt, an associate professor of geology at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Brigham Young University student Scott Meek found the specimen, including its skull and bones from its body, in 2014 when he was excavating bones from a 300-lb. (136 kilograms) chunk of sandstone. The chunk came from the Saints and Sinners quarry in Utah near the Colorado border, Britt said. [Photos of Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs]
"The site dates to the Late Triassic, about 210 million years , when Pangaea was still together, and vast desert stretched from what is now southern California to Wyoming," Britt told Live Science. (The supercontinent Pangaea didn't begin to break up until about 200 million years ago.)
The pterosaur fossil is remarkably well preserved, not crushed like other pterosaur remains. "Outside of a find in Greenland, this is the first good Triassic pterosaur from North America," he said.
A geologic analysis of the quarry suggests that, during the Late Triassic, many animals congregated around a lush oasis - decked out with plants - surrounded by a vast desert. But then the oasis dried up, leaving the fauna and flora without a drop of water.
"The animals 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," Britt said.
The ancient sand and water did such a good job of preserving the pterosaur's fossils, that researchers can create a detailed picture of the animal. For instance, the pterosaur has spaces in its braincase and lower jaw that suggest the bones were air-filled in life, just like the bones of later pterosaurs and birds (to which pterosaurs are not related), Britt said.
Furthermore, the pterosaur has surprisingly small eyes, and its dentition is "quite a mix, with a combination of fangs and miniscule teeth in each side of the lower jaws," Britt said. In all, it has 80 teeth on its lower jaws (including the four fangs), and 30 on its upper jaws, including eight little ones in the front and 22 medium teeth in the back.