for National Geographic News
Fossils found in northeastern China have revealed two new species of flying reptiles that lived more than 120 million years ago, during the dinosaur era. The extinct species, known as pterosaurs, belong to groups previously found only in Europe.
Scientists made the find in a region known for the diversity of its fossil specimens dating from the Cretaceous period, which lasted from 144 million to 65 million years ago.
The discovery may offer clues about the distribution of species during that time. Researchers now suggest, for example, that pterosaurs may have dominated coastal areas while birds were more dominant inland.
"[This research] shows a much higher diversity in pterosaur groups than one could possibly expect," said Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Kellner led the study, which appears tomorrow in the journal Nature.
The pterosaurs were neither dinosaurs nor birds but rather flying reptiles that ruled the skies millions of years ago. They ranged in size from that of a sparrow to that of a small aircraft.
Like other pterosaurs, these species had long beaks and sharp teeth. The wingspan of both species was about 2.5 meters (8 feet).
It was once thought that pterosaurs glided instead of flapping their wings. However, researchers have now established that all but the largest pterosaurs could sustain powered flight.
The new pterosaur species were unearthed by Chinese paleontologists three years ago at Jehol in the west of Liaoning Province in northeastern China.
One species, Feilongus youngi, was discovered in a fossil deposit called Yixian Formation. The other species, Nurhachius ignaciobritoi, was found in a deposit called Jiufotang Formation.
The two deposits, which are 125 and 120 million years old respectively, are full of fossilized dinosaurs, birds, mammals, lizards, fish, turtles, insects, and plants. Many of the fossils have been collected and sold by peasant farmers.
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