Flying Cretaceous Monster Ate Dinosaurs For Breakfast

Image: PeerJ
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.

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.

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[Peer]

Space Writer, Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

sillysaur
Zach Miller

Where do I start.

Problems start right out of the gate:

“It’s been said that the pterosaur, which can only be described as a bird-reptile-dinosaur-esque-thing, was the largest flying animal.”

No. “The pterosaur?” Pterosaurs, plural, are a large, diverse group of flying reptiles closely related to, but more basal then, dinosaurs. They ranged from very small to unbelievably large. “The pterosaur” was not the largest flying animal. A FAMILY OF PTEROSAURS achieved the largest wingspan of any flying animal (Azhdarchidae).

Also, your header image is Dimorphodon, a small Late Triassic pterosaur from England (and possibly Mexico). I will give you credit, however, for using another Mark Witton illustration, even if I suspect it was accidental.

“For obvious reasons, scientists have had a difficult time figuring how to classify the pterosaur...”

This whole paragraph is inaccurate. Pterosaur relationships used to be poorly understood but are now pretty firmly settled, both in relation to other ornithodirans and within the group itself. But that’s irrelevant to the topic anyway—azhdarchid pterosaurs tell you almost NOTHING about pterosaur relationships because they’re the last lineage of the group. It would be like using baleen whales to study the evolution of artiodactyl mammals.

“In their study, published in the journal Peer-J, Darren Naish and Mark P. Witton describe how the pterosaur fossils they found—from a creature they nicknamed Hatzegopteryx...”

It’s not a nickname. Christ. It’s the genus. And it has a species name. And the binomial should be italicized: Hatzegopteryx thambema. And it wasn’t named by Naish & Witton. It was named by Buffetaut, Grigorescu & Csiki in 2002. Fun fact: the holotype is ridiculously fragmentary.

“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.”

Why fish? Here, just...please read this paper (by the same authors).

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0002271

“Hopefully, this new research will help paleontologists understand how to classify these bizarre creatures.”

It’s not about classification, it’s about IN-GROUP DIVERSITY.

Look, I’m sorry if this comes off as harsh, but the tiniest bit of Internet research would tell you everything I just said. You don’t have to wade into the technical literature or give us a literature review of azhdarchid paleobiology. Wikipedia is your friend. It drives me crazy when science writers try to be clever in their writing instead of doing the most BASIC research on well-known groups of animals.

Please take this comment under advisement for future science articles.