Scientists Discover New Species Of Ancient Flying Reptile In Alberta, Canada

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Monday, September 16, 2019 - 5:05am

Audio icon Download mp3 (1.27 MB)

David Maas
Fossil discovery shows new species of pterosaur, Cryodrakon boreas, that dominated the skies above North America about 77 million years ago.

Scientists have discovered a new species of ancient flying reptile based on fossils unearthed in southern Alberta, Canada. They’re calling it Cryodrakon boreas, the “Frozen Dragon of the North Wind.”

The findings appear in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Thanks to limited and fragmentary fossils, the azhdarchid family of pterosaurs are nearly as mythical as the dragons their Uzbek name describes.

The storklike carnivores dwelled beside and ancient inland sea in a climate akin to modern Louisiana. They could grow to 13 feet tall with a 30-foot wingspan.

Co-discoverer Mike Habib of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine said the 77-million-year old fossil is critical for understanding pterosaur biology, evolution and ecology.

“It is better preserved, in terms of not being crushed, and more completely preserved, in terms of having lots of elements all from one skeleton, than most pterosaurs in general, particularly the other azhdarchid pterosaurs — the other dragon pterosaurs,” he said.

That preservation was essential for distinguishing the new genus and species from its slightly svelter cousin, Quetzalcoatlus.

“If you've just got a wing, it's very difficult to tell exactly what species you have. If you've got a neck to go with it, then you can tell. And we fortunately have a neck,” Habib said.

Pterosaur skeletons are strong but light because their bones contain spaces for small balloonlike structures in their respiratory system.

The fact that the arrangement of these balloons in the neck vertebrae differs from species to species provided the key clue that C. boreas was new species.

Prior to this discovery, the Dinosaur Park Formation has produced plenty of dinosaurs, but few pterosaurs — which, as Habib explained, are not dinosaurs.

“Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs — or were not dinosaurs, I guess I should say. Amusingly enough, your Thanksgiving turkey is," Habib said. 

If you like this story, Donate Now!

Like Arizona Science Desk on Facebook