‘Dragon of death’: South America’s largest pterosaur had a wingspan of nearly 30 feet

Largest pterosaur ever discovered displayed at university

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Pterosaurs are an extinct group of flying reptiles that soared across the skies from the late Triassic period through to the end of the Cretaceous — 226–66 million years ago. They were the earliest-known vertebrates to evolve powered flight, sporting wings formed from a membrane of skin, muscle and other tissues that stretched from their ankles to their elongated fourth fingers. While long thought to have been exclusively fish-eaters, palaeontologists now believe that the pterosaurs covered a variety of dietary niches — also hunting land animals, insects and even other pterosaur species.

The remains of two individuals from the new species, Thanatosdrakon amaru, were unearthed by palaeontologist Dr Leonardo Ortiz David of the National University of Cuyo and his colleagues in the province of Mendoza, in an outcrop near the Colorado River.

These rocks date back to some 86 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous Period.

Initially exposed as the result of civic works, the exceptionally well–preserved fossil remains include the flying reptile’s vertebrae and the bones of the fore and hind limbs.

T. amaru is presently the only species in its genus. While “Thanatosdrakon” translates to “dragon of death” in Greek, the species name “amaru” — literally, “flying serpent”, honours the two-headed, winged Incan serpent of the same name.

One of the specimens, the team reported, had a wingspan of nearly 30 feet, while the other was slightly smaller, with a span of just 23 feet.

This makes the flying reptile not only the biggest to have ever been uncovered in South America but also one of the largest flying species ever to have lived.

Dr Ortiz David said: “Pterosaurs — flying reptiles — were a very unique group of animals that lived from the Triassic to the Cretaceous and represent the first vertebrates to acquire the ability to actively fly.

“They are usually confused with dinosaurs, a closely related group.”

Dr Ortiz David added: “It is unusual to find numerous large pterosaur bones in a good state of preservation.

“This aspect is crucial, since Thanatosdrakon preserves elements never before discovered in other giant azhdarchids.”

The Azhdarchidae are a clade of pterosaurs that lived in the late Cretaceous Period. Their most famous member is Quetzalcoatlus — the largest pterosaur in the world.

Quetzalcoatlus, which had a wingspan of a whopping 33 feet, was first unearthed in the Big Bend National Park in Texas back in 1971.

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The researchers said: From a palaeoecological point of view, Thanatosdrakon was found in floodplain deposits of ephemeral meandering systems.”

This, they added, indicates “that this large flying species inhabited continental environments.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

Additional reporting by Maria Ortega.

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