Australian researchers have found a new species of pterosaur in outback Queensland.
The pterosaur, a prehistoric flying reptile, lived among the dinosaurs that roamed the Winton region about 96 million years ago.
The apex aerial predator had a four-metre wingspan and walked on all four limbs when on land.
Fossilised pterosaur bones were found by grazier Bob Elliot on Belmont Station outside the tiny town in 2017, the first find of a pterosaur from the Winton Formation.
A two-week dig at the site uncovered the most complete specimen of its kind in Australia.
The well-preserved find includes five partial vertebrae, eight limb bones, a large part of the jaw and skull, and 40 full and partial teeth of a previously unknown pterosaur species, with the findings published in Scientific Reports on Friday.
Lead author and Swinburne University of Technology PhD candidate Adele Pentland said it was incredible to be part of the discovery.
“We didn’t really know what we were in for and we just kept on finding more material and it felt great,” she said.
“Pterosaurs are quite rare in the fossil record because their bones are hollow and the outer bone is normally only about a millimetre thick.”
Previously there were only 15 known fragmentary specimens of pterosaurs in Australia’s fossil record, which made it exciting to see the new pterosaur described, said palaeontologist Steven Salisbury of the University of Queensland, who was not involved in the study.
“Every new little bit makes a big difference to understanding their evolutionary relationships and significance,” Dr Salisbury said.
Another reason pterosaur fossils are so rare is because scientists suspect they were soaring animals, so they would have spent a lot of their time over the ocean.
“Probably a lot of the time they died on the wing,” Dr Salisbury said. “Then, for their carcasses to get preserved as fossils, they would have to survive and get to the bottom of the ocean.
“There’s plenty of things in the ocean that would love to munch on a pterosaur.”
In Australia, the smaller pterosaur fossils would have to survive in amongst all the dinosaur bones and other fossils.
“Pterosaurs aren’t always obvious, but you know slowly as more and more people are looking, things like this are emerging which is good,” Dr Salisbury said.
A dragon named Butch
The researchers have dubbed the new species Ferrodraco lentoni, or Lenton’s Iron Dragon.
It’s been nicknamed “Butch” for short, in honour of former Winton mayor Graham “Butch” Lenton.
Butch looks quite similar to some of the pterosaurs found in England, Dr Salisbury said, which is what scientists have long suspected based on previous pterosaur fossil finds.
Given their flight capabilities, researchers expect to see closely related pterosaur species found all over the world.
But Butch’s unique teeth set it apart from other similar species found elsewhere, Ms Pentland said.
This pterosaur was found to have a smaller first-tooth pair and smaller teeth further back in the mouth, compared to previously discovered species.
Researcher aren’t yet sure why it has smaller teeth than usual.
“It might have something to do with the type of fish that it fed on,” Ms Pentland said.
“Hopefully with more material that we [might] find … we’ll have a better idea of the bigger picture.”
While some groups of pterosaurs persisted right up until the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, this group of pterosaurs was thought to have died out 94 million years ago.
But this find, in the slightly younger Winton Formation, suggests they might have survived later in Australia than elsewhere, perhaps as late as 90 million years ago.
Dr Salisbury warns we have to remember we don’t have a substantial pterosaur fossil record to speculate on here.
“It’s very much piecing together little pieces of a probably much larger puzzle,” he said.
“You have to be careful how you read it, because it’s very likely that a lot of these groups of pterosaurs persisted longer, but we just don’t have the fossil record to show for it.
“For instance in Australia, anything younger than this part of the Winton Formation, so from about 92 million years ago until the end of the age of dinosaurs we’ve got virtually nothing in terms of any potential fossil record.”
Big news for the region
The Winton region is a treasure trove of prehistoric fossils and world-renowned dinosaur trackways.
But Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum executive chairman David Elliot said it was still a huge find.
“We hold digs every year but it’s not often that we get something different, that’s so different and so exciting,” he said.
“What makes it really exciting now is we’re just starting to get a whole ecosystem of dinosaurs together.”
Mr Elliot said it had been a lot of work to get the find to this stage.
“We’re so lucky to have Adele,” he said.
“I think it’s got to be the coolest PhD project that’s ever been done in Australia and she’s done an amazing job of it.”