BYU paleontologist discovers new pterosaur
Walking into the lab and seeing something new is like Christmas for Brooks Britt. So when he saw ancient bones he didn’t recognize, and realized he was looking at the first pterosaur found in a desert, Christmas had come early.
“We didn’t have any hope of finding them in an ancient desert,” said Britt, a geological sciences professor at Brigham Young University.
What was found was a previously-unknown pterosaur — ancient reptiles that were close cousins of dinosaurs and were the first animals to have powered flight.
The pterosaur, named Caelestiventus hanseni (“heavenly wind”), is named after one of Britt’s daughters, Celeste, and is a nod to the Saints and Sinners Quarry in northern Utah where it was found.
The pterosaur is more than 200 million years old and is one of the oldest pterosaurs found.
“This is a big change of the picture,” Britt said.
At the quarry, paleontologists extract large blocks of sandstone from the Triassic Period that are whittled down to uncover bones. There have been 18,000 bones found on the site, including many bones of early crocodiles the size of big lizards, but only one pterosaur.
The Caelestiventus hanseni had a wingspan of 5 feet, its head was 7 inches long and it had large fangs.
“This is a ferocious little guy,” Britt said.
Pterosaur bones are already pretty rare due to how delicate the bones are.
“They are the consistency of graham crackers,” Britt said. “You can’t remove them.”
Instead of extracting the bones, the rock is scanned and the background digitally cut away to expose bone.
Pterosaurs were diverse and evolved quite rapidly. They mainly ate fish and lived near bodies of water — which made finding one in a desert such a surprise.
“It is fascinating to look back at a little slice of Earth’s history, right back when it was a giant desert, and find such a diversity of animals,” Britt said.
Britt said a display is being made so the pterosaur can be displayed at the Museum of Paleontology at BYU.
The discovery was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.