New species of pterodactyl roamed the skies above the Utah

New pterodactyl species with vampire-like fangs and a five-foot wingspan soared above the Utah desert 200 million years ago, fossilised remains reveal

  • New reptile species is named Caelestiventus hanseni – Latin for ‘heavenly wind’
  • It had a wingspan of five feet, making it possibly the biggest early pterodactyl
  • It lived between 201 and 210 million years ago beside a large lake in Utah, USA
  • At the time, North America was much drier and hotter than it is today 
  • This find shows the earliest pterodactyls were geographically widely distributed 
  • This could explain how they survived a mass extinction 200 million years ago
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A new species of ‘toothy’ pterodactyl with vampire-like fangs soared above the Utah desert 200 million years ago, new fossils have revealed.

The newly-discovered reptile is named Caelestiventus hanseni – Latin for ‘heavenly wind’ – and had a wingspan of five feet (1.5 metres), making it the biggest example of an early pterodactyl species.

Caelestiventus hanseni (C. hanseni) lived between 201 and 210 million years ago beside a lake in Utah, during a time when North America was much hotter and drier than it is today.

Until now, the only other known pterodactyl, or pterosaur, from this age came from the coasts of Europe, including the UK and Greenland.

The new fossil predates all known ‘desert pterosaurs’ by more than 65 million years. 

The latest finding shows the earliest pterodactyls were geographically widely distributed and ecologically diverse – even able to thrive in harsh desert environments.

It may explain how they survived a mass extinction, which also fell around 200 million years ago and killed-off half of the world’s species.

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A new species of ‘toothy’ pterodactyl with vampire-like fangs soared above the Utah desert 200 million years ago, a new fossil reveals (artist’s impression)

The pterodactyls were were remarkably successful, ruling the skies for over 160 million years.

They were the second animals after insects to evolve powered flight – not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air.

A dramatic shift in the carbon cycle 200 million years ago, which scientists say was triggered by a series of massive volcanic eruptions, led to a sustained period of climate change.

Many types of animal died out, including other reptiles, large amphibians and reef-building creatures – however, pterodactyls survived.

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Scientists believe the new fossil, found at Saints and Sinners Quarry outside Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, might hold the secret to their success.

‘In the latest Triassic, this area of North America was more arid and hot than it is today, indicating C. hanseni could cope with extreme desert conditions,’ said palaeontologist Professor Brooks Britt, who is the lead researcher from Brigham Young University in Utah.

This shows ptersaurs could tolerate a variety of environmental conditions and therefore would have been more resilient to sudden changes of climate, according to the paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. 


This ancient creature had a pelican style pouch, which it could use to store the prey it snatched. The primitive ‘beak bag’ was also used to attract potential mates – and emit throaty high pitched calls


Huge bony sockets show it had around half a dozen ‘fang like’ teeth in the front of its mouth and at least three dozen pairs of smaller ones


The bones from the fossil belonged to a single individual, possibly a juvenile, that died in the water and sank to the bottom, becoming entombed in silty, fine sandstone

‘Triassic pterosaurs are extraordinarily rare and all but one specimen come from marine deposits in the Alps,’ said Professor Britt.

‘Caelestiventus hanseni shows the earliest pterosaurs were geographically widely distributed and ecologically diverse, even living in harsh desert environments.’

This ancient creature had a pelican style pouch, which it could use to store the prey it snatched. 

The primitive ‘beak bag’ was also used to attract potential mates – and emit throaty high pitched calls.


The find shows ptersaurs (stock image) could tolerate a variety of environmental conditions and therefore would have been more resilient to sudden changes of climate, according to the paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution 


Pterodactyls were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight – not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air. Pictured is a pterodactyl in the 1993 American science-fiction adventure film Jurrasic Park


Scientists believe the new fossil, found at Saints and Sinners Quarry outside Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, might hold the secret to their success

WHAT WERE PTEROSAURS?

Neither birds nor bats, pterosaurs were reptiles who ruled the skies in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Scientists have long debated where pterosaurs fit on the evolutionary tree.

The leading theory today is that pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and crocodiles are closely related and belong to a group known as archosaurs, but this is still unconfirmed.


Neither birds nor bats, pterosaurs were reptiles who ruled the skies in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (artist’s impression pictured)

Pterosaurs evolved into dozens of species. Some were as large as an F-16 fighter jet, and others as small as a sparrow.

They were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight – not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air.

Pterosaurs had hollow bones, large brains with well-developed optic lobes, and several crests on their bones to which flight muscles attached. 

Huge bony sockets show it had around half a dozen ‘fang like’ teeth in the front of its mouth and at least three dozen pairs of smaller ones.

A projecting rim on the lower jaw suggests C. hanseni had a throat pouch ‘similar to those of modern day pelicans,’ said Professor Britt.

‘A gular pouch may also function in visual display and vocal communication, as in male frigate birds or the flying lizard Draco.’

The bones from the fossil belonged to a single individual, possibly a juvenile, that died in the water and sank to the bottom, becoming entombed in silty, fine sandstone. 


Some pterosaurs had wingspans of up to 35 feet (10 metres) – as big as a fighter jet – while others were as small as a sparrow (artist’s impression)

Professor Britt said: ‘Based on skull length and estimated wing span, C. hanseni is one of the largest Triassic pterosaurs, if not the largest.’ 

Some pterosaurs had wingspans of up to 35 feet (10 metres) – as big as a fighter jet – while others were as small as a sparrow. 

Pterosaurs had hollow bones, large brains with well-developed optic lobes, and several crests on their bones to which flight muscles attached.

The fossil record of pterosaurs, which lived alongside the dinosaurs but were unrelated to birds, is patchy.

Their bones were fragile and few of the creatures lived in places where fossils form easily, making pterosaur finds rare.

WHEN WERE EARTH’S ‘BIG FIVE’ EXTINCTION EVENTS?

Traditionally, scientists have referred to the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions, including perhaps the most famous mass extinction triggered by a meteorite impact that brought about the end of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. 

But the other major mass extinctions were caused by phenomena originating entirely on Earth, and while they are less well known, we may learn something from exploring them that could shed light on our current environmental crises.

 

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