Monday, 5 March 2012

The Ghost Dragons Of Ancient China

The snaggletoothed fossil of Guidraco venator
Pterosaurs are something of a legend due to their incredible similarity to the mythical dragon. They ranged from sparrow-sized creatures to 15 metre giants larger than a light aircraft. Some had giant crests and plumages. Some had jaws that were more like beaks while others had long, elegant jaws which housed a series of snaggletoothed barbs. They were an incredibly diverse group and only became extinct due to a mix of climate change and competition from warm blooded birds.

A reconstruction of the skull of Guidraco venator, displaying
 the barb-like teeth. The lack scale bar indicates 1 centimeter
Now palaeontologists excavating at the 120 million year old Jiufotang Formation in northeast China have discovered a new species, a single skull from a mysterious winged predator. This species is perhaps the most snaggletoothed yet. Named Guidraco venator, a mix of Chinese and Latin which translates as 'ghost dragon hunter,' the pterosaur had a wingspan of between 13 and 16 feet and fed on fish. Coprolites found around the fossil were full of fish vertebrae. Its nest of long, sharp barbs at the front of its jaws would have helped it catch prey.

The Pterosaur also had a small crest on the top of its head which was probably used in mating rituals as well as to stabilize it during flight. What makes this species interesting, apart from its bizarre anatomical endowments, is that it provides a tantalizing glimpse into the global distribution of pterosaurs and their lifestyle. Most pterosaur fossils have been found in areas which were once river valleys or arid plains, suggesting that they dwelt mainly inland and that only the larger species were built for overseas travel.

This fossil was found in marine sediments, adding another ecological system to the world of the pterosaur. Secondly, the closest living relative of Guidraco is a Brazilian species called Ludodactylus sibbicki. 120 million years ago, the landmasses which would become South America and China were on opposite sides of the Earth, separated to the east by a land ruled by dinosaurs and to the west the young Pacific ocean, ruled by giant marine predators.

Yet the similarity between the two species shows that some pterosaurs or pterosaur groups had a global range. The palaeontologists predict that this will become more apparent with more fossil discoveries around the world,' said Eberhard “Dino” Frey, a paleontologist at the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe. 'It’s only a matter of time before more pterosaurs pop out of the rock. I don’t think we are at the end of the findings, we’re going to see more and more overlaps and discover only a few species were endemic to a region'