New fossils of flying dinosaurs: four pterodactyls

New fossils of flying dinosaurs: four pterodactyls

Flying reptile family welcomes 4 new pterodactyls (Pterosauria), enriching our knowledge about size, diet, and habitat of ancient rulers of the skies.

These new finds are very exciting and provide a window into the world of pterosaurs in Cretaceous Africa.

ML Jacobs, lead scientist behind the discovery

Pterodactyls colonized whole Earth

Discoveries came from northern Africa – inside the borders of modern Morocco. Back in the days of dinosaurs, 140 to 66 million years ago, Africa was only beginning to separate itself from previous supercontinental Gondwana. Its northern regions served probably as a migratory route between other parts of the world, similarly to modern migrations of birds.

Facts about found dinosaur fossils

The specimens were diagnosed as belonging to genuses:

  • Anhanguera with wingspan of 4.5 m (15 ft), with teeth, previously found in Brazil and Mongolia, here identified after lower jaw bones
  • Ornithocheirus with wingspan of 6-7 m (20-25 ft), with teeth, up to this moment discovered only in England, here linked to the kind by upper jaw bones, additionally its fossils suggest interaction with fresh water lakes
  • Coloborhynchus with wingspan of 7 m (23 ft), with teeth, present on multiple continents, here the fragments of skull allowed the scientists to discuss whether it is a new kind in this genus
  • Afrotapejara with wingspan of 4 m (13 ft), without teeth, found globally, here scientists found parts of the dinosaur skeleton which allowed them to propose a new kind named A. zouhrii after paleontologist Samir Zouhri

For such large animals, they would have weighed very little. Their wingspans were around 10 to 13 feet, with their bones almost paper-thin and full of air, very similar to birds.

ML Jacobs

Based on fossils of above pterodactyls, this is their artistic depiction:

In most cases, fragmentary nature of fossils did not allow precise, species-level identification. However, scientists proposed that they found probably two new species of flying dinosaurs – and their institutions covered the story in even more optimistic way, suggesting four new kinds of pterodactyls.

Either way, the findings provide much more interesting data on habits of pterosaurs than their diversity: it is direct evidence for widespread migrations and colonization of the Earth. Given the size of these reptils, it was expected (some are as wide as F-16 fighter jets!), but scientists had evidence for multicontinental presence only in very limited cases of a few species. Now, Northern African discoveries show that at least 4 new kinds had capability to fly for longer distances over bodies of water. Among them, there are two relatively small, 4 m (13 – 15 ft) pterosaurs.

Future will bring more pterodactyl discoveries

Excavations at the site – called Kem Kem Beds – are still ongoing. To this date, scientists identified fossils belonging to ten species of flying dinosaurs. We can expect that this place, somehow remarkable for pterodactyls, will bring even more precious remains, extending our knowledge about over 120 species of pterosaurs – the first large flying animals in the history of Earth.

We are still far from having found all the paleontological treasures of North Africa.

D Martill

References: doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2020.104413, image by Megan Jacobs / Baylor University.