An artist's impression of the Jurassic-era pterosaur discovered in Patagonia. Image credit: Gabriel Lío
Pterosaur fossils are incredibly rare—the skeletons of the ancient flying reptiles were lightweight and fragile, often crushed to pieces after they died—which is why it’s pretty miraculous that scientists in opposite hemispheres recently discovered two new pterosaur fossils.
While members of the same order, the two specimens are separated by roughly 100 million years and what is now about 7800 miles. In the Patagonia region of Argentina, scientists have uncovered the fossil of a new pterosaur species dating to the Early Jurassic, which they’ve dubbed Allkauren koi (meaning “ancient brain”), while in British Columbia researchers have discovered a tiny azhdarchoid pterosaur fossil, no bigger than a house cat, from the Late Cretaceous.
A restoration of a small-bodied pterosaur, representing the unusually small Late Cretaceous azhdarchoid specimen, against a modern housecat. Image credit: Mark Witton
The Patagonia finding is exciting not only because it represents the discovery of a new species, but because it includes an intact braincase, presenting scientists with a rare opportunity to study the species’ neurocranial anatomy. In the case of the British Columbia finding, meanwhile, researchers are shocked to have discovered such a tiny pterosaur from the Late Cretaceous period. Most of the pterosaur fossils discovered from that era, around 77 million years ago, are much larger, with wingspans from 13 to 36 feet. The new pterosaur, by contrast, has a wingspan of a mere five feet. The finding shows that much smaller pterosaurs may have coexisted with their giant brethren, though their delicate fossils are much rarer.
“The absence of small juveniles of large species—which must have existed—in the fossil record is evidence of a preservational bias against small pterosaurs in the Late Cretaceous,” explains researcher Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone. “It adds to a growing set of evidence that the Late Cretaceous period was not dominated by large or giant species, and that smaller pterosaurs may have been well represented in this time.”