The adaptable pterosaur – the first flying vertebrate – lived in dark, polar conditions in what is now Australia, according to a new paper. The research identified two pterosaur bones more than 30 years after their initial discovery.
The bones date to 107 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, when Australia formed a large southern landmass with Antarctica, New Zealand and South America. At that time, the Australian state of Victoria – where volunteers first found the fossils in the late 1980s – would have crossed into the polar circle, meaning it would’ve been covered in darkness for weeks on end during the winter.
“Despite these seasonally harsh conditions, it is clear that pterosaurs found a way to survive and thrive,” says Adele Pentland, a researcher at Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Western Australia, in a press release. “It will only be a matter of time until we are able to determine whether pterosaurs migrated north during the harsh winters to breed, or whether they adapted to polar conditions.”
Shapes and Sizes of Pterosaur
Pterosaurs belong to the archosaur family, along with dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds, to which they’re related. Paleontologists have identified more than 200 species of pterosaurs, including some with paper-thin bones and long, skinny fingers. The first, found in Germany in the late 1700s, predated the discovery of the dinosaurs by a half century.
The two new fossils, a pelvic bone and a small wing bone, came from two different pterosaurs, the paper says, including a juvenile, the first ever identified in Australia. The pelvic bone would have belonged to a pterosaur with a wingspan of more than six feet.
“Only a few remains have been discovered at what were [previously high latitude] locations, such as Victoria,” says Pentland, “so these bones give us a better idea as to where pterosaurs lived and how big they were.”
The Cliffs at Dinosaur Cove
Decades ago, volunteers found the bones at Dinosaur Cove, a well-known former floodplain in southeastern Australia with a history of discoveries. The cliffs at the site contain fossils of similar age as the pterosaur ones, the oldest yet found in the country.
“These two fossils were the outcome of a labor-intensive effort by more than 100 volunteers over a decade,” says Tom Rich, a curator at Museums Victoria Research Institute, in a press release. “That effort involved excavating more than 60 meters of tunnel where the two fossils were found in a seaside cliff.”
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