pterosaur Caiuajara dobruskii
August 15, 2014

Newly Discovered Winged Reptile Had A Head Crest Like A Butterfly Wing

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers have discovered nearly 50 bones belonging to a new species of winged reptile with a bizarre head crest comparable to a butterfly or a yacht sail, various media outlets reported earlier this week.

The new creature, identified as Caiuajara dobruskii, lived in southern Brazil during the Cretaceous period. The remains were discovered in a pterosaur bone bed from an interdunal lake deposit from an ancient desert, and it represents the southernmost occurrence of pterosaur bones ever discovered, the study authors wrote Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Following an initial analysis of the bones, paleontologist Alexander Kellner of the National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and his colleagues determined the bones represented a new pterosaur that differed from other members of its clade. For example, it possessed a bony expansion projecting inside the large opening in the skull in front of its eyes, and the rounded depressions in the outer surface of its jaw.

The bones discovered by Kellner’s team belonged to both juveniles and adults, with wing spans ranging from two to eight feet, explained Deborah Netburn of the Los Angeles Times. The variety of remains discovered will allow scientists to discover how the bones fit into their clade, as well as how the species developed as it matured.

For example, they found age-related variation in the size and angle of the creature’s bony head crest. In juveniles, it appears to have been small and inclined, but it grew larger and steeper during adulthood. The researchers said that the bone analysis suggests that the species was gregarious, lived in colonies and may have started flying at an exceptionally young age, which could have been an overall trend for many types of pterosaurs.

“This helps us to have a glimpse on the anatomical variation achieved by this species from young to old,” Kellner told Reuters reporter Will Dunham. He added that the unique triangular crest on its head was “bizarre” and resembled a “bony sail,” while Tia Ghose of LiveScience referred to the shape of its head as resembling “the wings of a butterfly.”

As the first flying vertebrates, pterosaurs roamed the Earth from approximately 220 million years ago to 65 million years ago, when they were obliterated by the same asteroid that also wiped out the dinosaurs, Dunham said. Caiuajara dobruskii itself is believed to have lived between 80 million and 90 million years ago, and Kellner said that it was a toothless species that sustained itself on a diet of fruit.

Since the fossils were found in what had once been an inland lake in a desert, Netburn said the study authors “think it is possible that these crested flying lizards may have lived in colonies around the lake, or perhaps, if they were migratory, stopped there for water after long flights.”

“As for what killed them, the researchers still don't know,” she added. “Desert storms and drought-related mortality are both possibilities. However, it should be noted that it does not seem that all the fossilized Caiuajara died at once, which suggests this area had been home to these flying lizards for a long stretch of time.”


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