Ancient flying reptiles fed like gulls
Special to CNN
(CNN) -- A new fossil discovery is shedding light on the pterosaur, a 110-million-year-old airborne reptile, scientists reported in this week's issue of the journal Science.
The fossil revealed structures similar to some seabirds, leading paleontologists to theorize that the Thalassodromeus sethi -- a previously undiscovered species of pterosaur -- fed like seabirds called skimmers, by swooping along the surface of the ocean and scooping up fish and other sea creatures.
Little is known about the pterosaur because few fossils have been found in good condition, but the newest specimen is exceptionally well-preserved.
"What excited me is we have a specimen with new information we didn't know before," said Alexander Kellner, co-author of the Science paper and professor of paleontology at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. "We can try to learn about their behavior, how they lived."
Kellner and his colleagues extrapolated the pterosaur's behavior patterns from clues in its bones by finding living animals with similar bone structures. They found that the pterosaur's beak was uniquely shaped and opened and closed like a pair of scissors.
"The only kinds of animal with this beak are skimmers," said Kellner.
Scientists also noticed significant scars on the pterosaur vertebrae, evidence of highly developed back and neck muscles -- another characteristic of skimmers.
Skimmers are black and white birds with red beaks and are found along most of the U.S. coastline. They feed by flying just above the ocean's surface and dragging their lower beaks in the water, snapping up fish and small sea creatures.
Scissors-beaks and developed neck musculature are two features that are important for this feeding action, according to Kellner.
T. sethi may have fed in the same manner, soaring on a 14-foot wingspan and dipping its two-foot long jaw into Cretaceous seas to snack on prehistoric fish.
The pterosaur fossil was found in the Araripe Basin in northeastern Brazil, which was a lagoon 100 million years ago and now is rich in fish, crocodilian and other aquatic fossils, according to Kellner.
The pterosaur fossil was covered with rock and dirt when it was found and was extensively cleaned with chemicals and acid. The cleaning process is expensive, tedious work and was not completed until recently when funding was made available.
Although pterosaurs look like dinosaurs, they are not actually dinosaurs. Pterosaurs differ from dinosaurs significantly in their pelvis, finger, and other bone structures.
Because of these differences, pterosaurs are considered closely related to, but not officially, dinosaurs.
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