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Researchers discover new type of flying reptile from the age of dinosaurs

Researchers from the Transylvanian Museum Society, the University of Southampton and the Museau Nacional have discovered a new type of flying reptile from the time of dinosaurs.

The fossilized bones of the new kind of flying pterosaur were discovered in the Late Cretaceous rocks of Sebeş-Glod in the Transylvanian Basin, Romania, which are about 68 million years old. Researchers note that this basin is world-famous for its many Late Cretaceous fossils, including those of other dinosaurs, mammals, turtles, lizards and ancient relatives of crocodiles.

The new species is called Eurazhdarcho langendorfensis.

Eurazhdarcho belong to a group of pterosaurs called the azhdarchids. These were long-necked, long-beaked pterosaurs whose wings were strongly adapted for a soaring lifestyle. Several features of their wing and hind limb bones show that they could fold their wings up and walk on all fours when needed,” says Darren Naish from the University of Southampton’s Vertebrate Palaeontology Research Group.

“With a three-meter wingspan, Eurazhdarcho would have been large, but not gigantic. This is true of many of the animals so far discovered in Romania; they were often unusually small compared to their relatives elsewhere,” he adds.

The discovery of Eurazhdarcho is the most complete example of an azhdarchid found in Europe so far. According to researchers, its discovery adds credence to a theory about the behavior of these types of creatures.

“Experts have argued for years over the lifestyle and behavior of azhdarchids. It has been suggested that they grabbed prey from the water while in flight, that they patrolled wetlands and hunted in a heron or stork-like fashion, or that they were like gigantic sandpipers, hunting by pushing their long bills into mud,” says Gareth Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

“One of the newest ideas is that azhdarchids walked through forests, plains and other places in search of small animal prey. Eurazhdarcho supports this view of azhdarchids, since these fossils come from an inland, continental environment where there were forests and plains as well as large, meandering rivers and swampy regions,” he adds.

Researchers add that their discovery suggests that the Late Cretaceous was a much more complicated world than previously thought. Fossils from the Late Cretaceous rocks of Sebeş-Glod in the Transylvanian Basin indicate that there were a number of places where both large and small azhdarchids coexisted. There were also a lot of different creatures hunting various prey in the region simultaneously.

According to the University of California-Berkeley, pterosaurs ruled the skies in the Jurassic and Cretaceous, ranging from the size of a small bird to the size of an airplane. It was once thought that these flying reptiles were not well suited for active flight and had to rely largely on gliding and on the wind to stay aloft, but recent research of pterosaur skeletal features has shown that all but the biggest pterosaurs could sustain powered flight.

Berkeley researchers note that the biggest pterosaur, known as Quetzalcoatlus, had a wing span of approximately forty feet. The wing was supported by an extremely long fourth digit in the hand and fibers in the wing membrane.

The study’s findings were recently described in detail in the journal PLoS One.

Photo credit: Franko Fonseca.