Researchers have identified a previously unknown species of pterosaur that lived 95 million years ago.
According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, the exceptionally well-preserved remains of the creature were first uncovered in a limestone quarry in Lebanon more than 15 years ago.
The authors of the study, from the University of Alberta, Canada, and the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, say that this creature lived in and around the “Tethys Sea”—a tropical body of saltwater that separated the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana during the Mesozoic Era (251 to 65.5 million years ago.)
Pterosaurs were a group of flying reptiles that roamed the skies during the age of the dinosaurs. They were the first group of vertebrates to develop powered flight.
Even though pterosaur remains are known from every modern-day continent, the fossil record of these animals is very uneven, with only a few deposits accounting for the vast majority of specimens. One of the regions that has the largest gaps when it comes to pterosaur remains is the African continent (which includes the Arabian peninsula for the purposes of this study).
The new find, according to the researchers, is the most complete pterosaur specimen ever discovered in this combined region, going some way to filling the large gaps in the fossil record.
“Pterosaur specimens, the first vertebrates to achieve powered flight, are still quite rare in the African continent,” Alexander Kellner, an author of the study from the Museu Nacional, said in a statement. “Here we describe the best-preserved material of this group of flying reptiles known from this continent so far, shedding new and much-needed light on the evolutionary history of these creatures.”
Intriguingly, the researchers say the newly identified specimen indicates that pterosaurs were a more diverse group than previously thought.
“The diversity of these ancient animals was much greater than we could ever have guessed at, and is likely orders of magnitude more diverse than we will ever be able to discover from the fossil record,” Michael Caldwell, a co-author on the study from the University of Alberta, said in a statement.
The new species has been dubbed Mimodactylus libanensis and it forms a new group of toothed pterosaurs alongside the closely related Chinese species Haopterus gracilis.
“This means that this Lebanese pterodactyloid was part of a radiation of flying reptiles living in and around and across the ancient Tethys Seaway, from China to a great reef system in what is today Lebanon,” Caldwell said.
The region in which M. libanensis lived was characterized by shallow marine waters filled with reefs and lagoons. It is likely that the animal fed on crustaceans, often catching its prey at the surface of the shallow waters, in a similar manner to the hunting behavior of some modern seabirds.
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