Fossils Reveal Two New Species of Flying Reptiles

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 5, 2005
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.

Rich Deposits

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.

The two new pterosaurs, however, have not been found there before.

Pterosaurs vs. Birds

The fossil deposits could provide researchers with an insight into the competition between pterosaurs and early bird species in this area of China.

"These areas of exceptional preservation give us a larger sample size that allows us to ask questions about community structure," said Jeffrey Wilson, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "For instance, which flying animals—birds or pterosaurs—were more predominant in this terrestrial deposit?"

Kellner suggests that birds must have been largely confined to inland areas, whereas pterosaurs dominated the coasts.

"Most pterosaurs come from deposits that represent ancient coastlines, lagoons, and shallow interior seas," Kellner said. "There birds were very rare. On the other hand the Liaoning deposits, which are far from the coast, show more birds than pterosaurs in both number of species and diversity."

But Wilson, the University of Michigan paleontologist, says it's too soon to make generalizations without comparing the recent finds with those in other deposits.

"We must ask whether this is a local or more general effect," he said. "After all there are few deposits to compare to the Jehol."

Other experts point out that pterosaurs were also quite common, although not diverse, in inland China at this time.

"The Tugulu group in northwestern China is roughly the same age as the formation in Liaoning, and pterodactyls [a kind of pterosaur] are incredibly common in it," said James Clark, a paleontologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Kellner acknowledges that there are many questions left unanswered about the pterosaurs.

"How do we know if Liaoning was a better place for pterosaurs to live than other places?" he said. "Actually we don't."

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