New pterodactyl species with vampire-like fangs and a five-foot wingspan soared above the Utah desert 200 million years ago, fossilised remains reveal.
A ‘TOOTHY’ pterosaur with vampire-like fangs soared above the Utah desert more than 200 million years ago, say scientists.The flying reptile also had a pelican style pouch – enabling it to store the prey it snatched from an idyllic dune surrounded lake.
The primitive ‘beak bag’ was also used to attract potential mates – and emit throaty high pitched calls.
Huge bony sockets show the front of the mouth had about about half a dozen “fang like” teeth – with the remainder lined with at least three dozen pairs of smaller ones.
The new species named Caelestiventus hanseni – Latin for ‘heavenly wind’ – had a wingspan of five feet (1.5 metres) making it possibly the biggest early pterosaur.
It provides fresh insight into the frightening predators – also called pterodactyls – that have stirred the imagination since their discovery over two centuries ago.
They were remarkably successful – ruling the skies for over 160 million years as they glided above the dinosaurs. But fossils are rare.
Palaeontologist Professor Brooks Britt, who led the expedition, said C. hanseni lived in an area of North America that was much drier and hotter than it is today.
This shows pterosaurs could tolerate a variety of environmental conditions – so were much more widespread than previously thought.
The remarkably preserved creature was dug up at a dinosaur graveyard known as the Saints & Sinners Quarry where more than 18,000 fossilised bones have been unearthed.
Described in Nature Ecology & Evolution, a projecting rim on the lower jaw suggests C. hanseni had a throat pouch “similar to those of modern day pelicans”, said Prof Britt.
It lived between 201 and 210 million years ago beside a large, shallow lake upon which it would swoop for fish and other marine animals. The area was also dotted with sand dunes.
The bones from the jaw, braincase, wings and other parts of its anatomy belonged to a single individual, possibly a juvenile, that died in the water and sank to the bottom, becoming entombed in silty, fine sandstone.
Prof Britt said: “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.”
Until now, the only other known pterosaurs from this age came from the coasts of Europe, including the UK, and Greenland.
It may explain how they survived a mass extinction, coincidentally also around 200 million years ago, which killed off half the world’s species.
Volcanic eruptions have been blamed for the mass loss of life. Many types of animal died out including other reptiles, large amphibians and reef-building creatures.
Prof Britt, of Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, said: “Pterosaurs are the oldest known powered flying vertebrates. Originating in the Late Triassic, they thrived to the end of the Cretaceous.
“Triassic pterosaurs are extraordinarily rare and all but one specimen come from marine deposits in the Alps.
“Caelestiventus hanseni shows the earliest pterosaurs were geographically widely distributed and ecologically diverse, even living in harsh desert environments.”
It predates all known ‘desert pterosaurs’ by more than 65 million years and is closely related to Dimorphodon macronyx from roughly the same period. That pterosaur was found on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast in 1828.
Prof Britt said: “Based on skull length and estimated wing span, C. hanseni is one of the largest Triassic pterosaurs, if not the largest.
The shape and position of the jaw suggest it may mark the attachment of skin to the throat, known as a ‘gular pouch’.
He said: “Such a structure could have been a throat pouch used to store prey, as in some birds.
“A gular pouch may also function in visual display and vocal communication, as in male frigate birds or the flying lizard Draco.”
Pterosaurs had wingspans of up to 35 feet – as big as a fighter jet. The largest may have weighed a quarter of a ton – 10 feet more across than the biggest flying bird.
Neither birds nor bats, scientists have long debated where pterosaurs fit on the evolutionary tree.
They 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.
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.