Paleontologists at Brigham Young University have made a rare discovery: a new pterosaur they have named Caelestiventus (heavenly wind) hanseni. One of the older such specimens ever discovered, the find is around 210 million years old.
Pterosaurs were prehistoric flying reptiles that were neither bird nor dinosaur, but were the earliest known vertebraes to develop the power of flight. Until this discovery, only 30 known Triassic pterosaur had been discovered.
Brooks Britt, a geological sciences professor at BYU, discovered C. hanseni in northwestern Utah. Like other sites in Utah, the Saints and Sinners Quarry rests on land protected by the federal government that is chock-full of bones. More than 18,000 have been discovered on the site so far. Britt had been expecting to find something during his studies, but something more along the lines of early crocodiles and dinosaurs “because Triassic pterosaurs are extraordinarily rare,” he says in a .
There's a reason for that rarity. Flying animals typically have bones that are hollow and stiffer than other animals, which is better for flying. However, it makes for poor fossilization. Stiffer bones are more likely to be brittle, and when dealing with an animal millions of years old, the chances for the bones to be crushed through natural wear and tear, not to mention outside animal or human influence, are myriad.
To study Saints and Sinners bones, Britt's team extracts large blocks of sandstone at random to try their luck in the lab. There, they found C. hanseni trapped within sand, which cannot be compressed. That means the fossils were uncrushed and three-dimensional. The new sample isn't just an early example of a pterosaurs, it's one of the best ever found.
“Most Triassic specimens consist of just a single bone: for example, a little phalanx from a finger or one vertebra from the neck,” Britt says. “For this animal, we have the sides of the face and the complete roof of the skull, including the brain case, complete lower jaws and part of the wing.”
That skull provides insights into what the pterosaur was really like, beyond its cameos in blockbuster movies like . It shows that C. hanseni had 112 teeth and that even the earliest pterosaurs had an extremely acute sense of vision balanced by a poor sense of smell.
The effort to better understand C. hanseni has become an international effort. The team at BYU has become Fabio Dalla Vecchia, a Triassic pterosaur expert associated with the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont in Sabadell, Spain.
"When we first ed [him] and said, ‘Hey, we've got a three-dimensional pterosaur out here in Utah,’ he goes, ‘No, no, no... I don't buy that,’" Britt recalls. "Then we sent him some three-dimensional images of the bones and it convinced him. Next thing you know, Fabio's at BYU, working with us on this specimen.”
It's the second major prehistoric discovery out of Utah this year, with the first being a spiky-headed cousin of an Ankylosaurus. Other ancient finds this year include a dinosaur rewriting the history of ancient China and the "Rosetta Stone of the Cretaceous" found in a NASA parking lot.