A new species of giant flying reptile has been found in the sands of the Sahara, a new study says.
But the 95-million-year-old pterosaur likely preferred life on the ground, spending most of its time stalking prey in what was once a lush wetland.
The 95-million-year old Alanqa saharicafrom, discovered in 2008 in southeast Morocco, belonged to a pterosaur family that flourished some 70 million years ago.
Jaw and neck bones of the newfound fossil identify it as the oldest known ancestor of the azhdarchids, a type of large pterosaur, said study leader Nizar Ibrahim of Ireland's University College Dublin.
A. saharicafrom had a toothless, beak-like jaw, a long, slender neck, and an estimated wingspan of 19.5 feet (6 meters), the study said.
"That tells us that even these very early azhdarchids were already pretty big and had the same kind of body proportions [as later giant species]," Ibrahim said.
Recent research also suggests that azhdarchids such as A. saharicafrom didn't fly that much. For example A. saharicafrom may have hunted "lizards and little dinosaurs with their long, slender jaws," Ibrahim said—"a bit like a stork or a heron."
"Amazingly Productive" Green Sahara
These winged creatures' light and flimsy bones seldom survive as fossils, and examples from Africa are especially rare.
"All the pterosaur material that has ever been found in Africa could fit on a very small table," he said.
But Ibrahim and colleagues got lucky during their expedition: They found similarly aged fossil fragments that belonged to two other previously unknown and unrelated pterosaurs.
These discoveries suggest that several different pterosaur species lived side by side, eating different prey in the ancient river delta.
For instance, one of the two yet-to-be described species had long, thin teeth that may have been used for grabbing fish while gliding over water. (Read about the Sahara's evolution from delta to desert.)
Surrounded by dry land, this wet ecosystem also supported diverse forms of crocodiles and dinosaurs, Ibrahim noted.
"It was such an amazingly productive environment," he said.
The findings were published on May 26 in the journal PLoS ONE.