Mini pterosaur from the age of flying giants

These were only about the size of big eagles

One of the new study’s authors illustrates what he suspects the tiny pterosaurs might have looked like.

MARK WITTON

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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