Flightless pterosaur ancestor found in Brazil

Fossilised remains found in Brazil of a creature that lived 230 million years ago believed to be a precursor to pterosaurs.

Venetoraptor gassenae, described in a paper published in Nature, was a small, land-dwelling, bipedal reptile about a metre in length and weighing 4–8 kg. It also had a toothless beak like modern birds of prey. It’s large hands had scimitar-like claws.

Skeleton ancient reptile fragment fossils around it
Skeletal anatomy of Venetoraptor gassenae. Credit: Müller et al.

It belonged to a clade of reptile known as lagerpetids. These ancient reptiles lived during the Triassic period and are considered the closest relatives of pterosaurs.

Pterosaurs emerged in the late Triassic and were the first vertebrates on Earth to use powered flight. A 200-million-year-old desert-dwelling animal first described earlier this year is among the oldest known pterosaurs. Pterosaurs went on to dominate the skies but met the same fate as the non-avian dinosaurs which went extinct 66 million years ago.

“Dinosaurs and pterosaurs originated in the Middle or early Late Triassic epoch,” says first author of the paper describing Venetoraptor gassenae, Federal University of Santa Maria palaeontologist Dr Rodrigo Temp Müller in an article on Sci.News.

“Both groups survived the end-Triassic extinction and became the numerically dominant tetrapods in land and sky, respectively, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.”

But the origins of pterosaurs remain a mystery. And their relationship with dinosaurs (pterosaurs are not dinosaurs) has also eluded palaeontologists but Venetoraptor gassenae adds a piece to this complex evolutionary puzzle.

The authors suggest that it was a specialised creature. Its claws were likely used to climb trees or capture prey. Its beak was probably used similarly to modern raptors who use their beaks for feeding, vocalisations or in mating behaviour.

Ancient reptile head with beak and fuzz
Reconstruction of Venetoraptor gassenae’s head in left anterolateral view. Credit: Caio Fantini.

Its beak predates the first known dinosaurs with beaks by about 80 million years.

V. gassenae was unearthed in the Santa Maria Formation in the Paraná Basin, southern Brazil. The site hosts many ancient fossils, including some of the earliest dinosaurs.

The find lends weight to the theory that lagerpetids are more closely related to pterosaurs than dinosaurs. It also suggests that successful lineages of ancient reptiles flourished even before the establishment of diversity within pterosaurs and dinosaurs.

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