Image: PeerJ

It’s been said that azhdarchid pterosaurs, which can only be described as bird-reptile-dinosaur-esque-things, were the largest flying animals. These giant beasts—which roamed the Earth during the Cretaceous period roughly 66.5 million years ago—were reptiles but not actually dinosaurs. Despite being winged, they weren’t birds, either.

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For obvious reasons, scientists have had a difficult time figuring how to classify pterosaurs. While the bones of pterosaurs have been found many times before, a lack of firm evidence has kept the hideous beast’s lineage shrouded in mystery. But recently, two researchers from the UK found a remarkable pair of azhdarchid pterosaur fossils in the Transylvania region of Romania that could bring paleontologists one step closer to figuring this shit out.

In their study, published in the journal Peer-J, Darren Naish and Mark P. Witton describe how the fossils they found—a kind of pterosaur called Hatzegopteryx—diverge from our “conventional” understanding of these creatures’ proportions. Typically, azharchid pterosaurs, the largest of the pterosaurs, are thought to have had unusually long necks, which they presumably craned down to reach for fish.

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But Hatzegopteryx was a stone cold killer. Its wide bones and short, stocky neck portray a dominant predator—not a ballerina bird-thing. Hatzegopteryx’s wide mouth probably helped it catch its prey the size of small horses—or dinosaurs—with ease.

“This specimen is one of several hinting at greater disparity within Azhdarchidae than previously considered, but is the first to demonstrate such proportional differences within giant taxa,” the researchers wrote.

Hopefully, this new research will help paleontologists understand diversity within azhdarchid pterosaurs. “The concept of short necked azhdarchids is yet to be explored in detail, despite the significance it has for our understanding of azhdarchid palaeoecology and disparity,” the researchers wrote.

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At the very least, the new fossil find gives us one more reason to be happy humans weren’t around in the nightmarish world of the late Cretaceous.

[Peer]