Mystery Pterosaur in Texas Takes Flight

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Don't mess with Texas Pterosaurs! They are the oldest yet found in North America. One recently found specimen may even be the oldest Pteranodon in the world.

The mystery flying reptile a type of pterosaur, took a final plunge 89 million years ago into the waters of the inland sea that once covered the central United States. It sank to the bottom, fossilized, and lay there until amateur fossil hunter Gary Byrd found the ancient aviator's bones. They were uncovered during the archaeology excavation of a culvert in a new subdivision north of Dallas.

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"I found a couple parts of a fish, and then when I saw these my initial thought was that they weren't fish," Byrd, a roofing contractor by day, said in a Southern Methodist University press release. "I kind of knew it was something different — a birdlike thing. It's very rare you find those thin, long bones."

Byrd already has a species of duckbill dinosaur, Protohadros byrdi, named after him in 1994. He donated the dinosaurs fossils to Southern Methodist University's Shuler Museum of Paleontology.

At the museum, Timothy Myers identified the bones as belonging to the left wing of a pterosaur, most likely a Pteranodon.

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"If it wasn't crushed so badly, it would be possible to determine if it really is Pteranodon," Myers said in a SMU press release. "These bones are easily flattened. They are hollow inside, because they have to be lightweight to allow a pterosaur to fly. So they compress like a pancake as they're embedded in layers of rock."

But certain structures on the bone suggest this was indeed a Pteranodon. It had, for example, a “prominent warped deltopectoral crest” characteristic of members of the Pteranodontidae family, Myers said.

"This new specimen adds a lot more information about pterosaurs in North America," Myers said.

Before this find, Pteranodons had only been found in the north in Kansas, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Byrd's flying reptile is also the oldest specimen found in the U.S. by 1 to 2 million years. An older species of pteranodon-type dinosaur, Ornithostoma, hails from England.

If this Texas fossils proves to be an actual Pteranodon, it will be the oldest example of the species in the world.

"Any pterosaur material is fairly rare to find unless you have exceptional preservation conditions. They are frail, fragile bones, and they require rapid burial to be well preserved," Myers said.

"The SMU specimen was deposited relatively far offshore in deep water, perhaps 50 to 80 feet deep. It's fairly exceptional because of the number of elements. Typically you'll only find one piece, or one part of a piece in the local rock," Myers said.

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This new specimen also lived at an important time of transition for pterosaurs. In the early to mid Cretaceous, around 80-90 million years ago, the winged reptiles were diversifying from toothed forms to toothless varieties like Pteranodon.

"This new specimen adds a lot more information about pterosaurs in North America," Myers said. "It helps constrain the timing of the transition from toothed to toothless because there's only a few million years separating this specimen and Aetodactylus."

Aetodactylus, also described by Myers, lived 95 million years ago, and had teeth. The toothless Texas Pteranodon lived only about six million years later.

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