Mention pterosaurs and most people think of those mammoth flying beasts that lived among the dinosaurs. They soared through the skies of the Late Cretaceous. But these bird-like reptiles didn’t have to be gargantuan to survive some 66 million to 100 million years ago. Scientists have just turned up evidence of relatively tiny ones.
The fossil fragments, roughly 77 million years old, came from what is now British Columbia, in western Canada. This pterosaur appears to have had wingspan of just 1.5 meters (5 feet). That would make it close to the stretch of a bald eagle.
This is the smallest pterosaur discovered from the Late Cretaceous (Kreh-TAY-shius) — and by a lot, notes Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone. She’s a paleontologist at the University of Southampton in England. She and her colleagues described the finding August 31 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Dozens of larger pterosaurs from the same general time period have been unearthed. Some had wings spanning more than 10 meters (33 feet). That’s nearly the length of a school bus. But until now, scientists had found only two smaller scale versions from that time. And they had wingspans roughly twice as big as the newfound one.
Scientists had suspected that the scarcity of little flying reptiles might be due to birds — that the pterosaurs just had trouble competing with them. It had seemed, some argued, that “the only way pterosaurs could survive was by evolving completely crazy massive sizes,” Martin-Silverstone says. But her team’s new find, she says, may mean that, “pterosaurs were doing better than we thought.”
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birds Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.
colleague Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.
dinosaur A term that means terrible lizard. These ancient reptiles lived from about 250 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago. All descended from egg-laying reptiles known as archosaurs. Their descendants eventually split into two lines. They are distinguished by their hips. The lizard-hipped line became saurichians, such as two-footed theropods like T. rex and the lumbering four-footed Apatosaurus (once known as brontosaurus). A second line of so-called bird-hipped, or ornithischian dinosaurs, led to a widely differing group of animals that included the stegosaurs and duckbilled dinosaurs.
fossil Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.
journal (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send out all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.
paleontologist A scientist who specializes in studying fossils, the remains of ancient organisms.
pterosaur Any of various extinct flying reptiles of the order Pterosauria. These animals lived 245 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Although not true dinosaurs, they lived during the reign of dinosaurs. Among members of this order were the pterodactyls of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which were characterized by wings consisting of a flap of skin supported by the very long fourth digit on each forelimb.
reptile Cold-blooded vertebrate animals, whose skin is covered with scales or horny plates. Snakes, turtles, lizards and alligators are all reptiles.