A new genus and species of pterosaur dating from the latest Triassic of North America (around 210-201 million years ago) is described in a paper published online this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The specimen was found in north-eastern Utah, indicating that early pterosaurs could live in varied environments and were widely distributed.
Pterosaurs are the oldest-known powered flying vertebrates. They first appeared in the Late Triassic and thrived for over 160 million years, up until the end of the Cretaceous Period. Triassic pterosaurs fossils are rare and all but one specimen come from marine deposits in the Alps.
Brooks Britt and colleagues found the fossil in exceptional condition. Named Caelestiventus hanseni, the specimen is large compared to other known early pterosaurs, with a 1.5-metre wingspan. The authors find that the lower jaw has a projecting rim, which may suggest that C. hanseni had a throat pouch similar to those of modern-day pelicans.
In the latest Triassic, this area of North America was more arid and hot than it is today, indicating that C. hanseni could cope with extreme desert conditions. Other known pterosaur taxa from this time come from coastal environments, in what is now Europe and Greenland, indicating that pterosaurs had a broad environmental tolerance from their early evolution. This flexibility, may have helped the pterosaurs survive the end-Triassic extinction event, which killed half of the species living at that time.