A newly described species suggests Australian pterosaurs may have persisted longer than we thought.
The pterosaurs – the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved the ability to fly – are a frequent and powerful symbol of the dinosaur age.
Pterosaurs have been discovered on every continent, but the fossil record is remarkably small. Their bones are thin and hollow and their remains are often incomplete.
The fossil record for these flying vertebrates in Australia is particularly sparse; there are only 15 known fragmentary specimens.
So, the discovery of a new species, Ferrodraco lentoni, in the fossil-rich country of central Queensland is noteworthy in and of itself. The bonus is that the fossil, which includes parts of the skull and five vertebrae and wing elements, is the most complete pterosaur specimen ever found on the vast island.
F. lentoni came to light in 2017 on Belmont Station, north-east of Winton, by a team including Adele Pentland, from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, the lead author of the description just published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Based on the shape and characteristics of its jaws, including crests on the upper and lower jaw and spike-shaped teeth, the authors identified the specimen as belonging to the Anhanguera, a clade also known from discoveries in Brazil, China and England.
Comparison with other anhanguerian pterosaurs suggests that F. lentoni had a wingspan of about four metres. The authors identified several unique dental characteristics, including small front teeth, which distinguish F. lentoni from other anhanguerians and identify it as a new species.
The team’s findings suggest that F. lentoni may be a late-surviving anhanguerian. They were believed to have gone extinct at the end of the Cenomanian period (100–94 million years ago).
The fossil was the first pterosaur reported from the Winton Formation, which underlies a large part of central and western Queensland, and was discovered in a part of the formation that may have deposited as late as the early Turonian period (93–90 million years ago).
This suggests the anhanguerians may have survived later in Australia than elsewhere.
Pentland and colleagues found the fossil preserved in ironstone. The name “Ferrodraco” refers to the Latin for iron and for dragon, while “lentoni” honours former Winton Shire mayor Graham Thomas ‘Butch’ Lenton, “in recognition of his years of service to the Winton community and support to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Natural History Museum”.