New species of flying reptile discovered
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Last Updated: Friday, April 30, 2010, 18:48
Washington: A fossilised jaw discovered from a hillside in Texas belongs to an ancient reptile or pterosaur that flew over the region some 95 million years ago, palaeontologists have claimed.

According to the scientists, the reptile called Aetodactylus halli had a nine-foot wingspan and was soaring over the sea in what is now North Texas when it fell into the water and died.

Lance Hall, a member of the Dallas Paleontological Society, had found the fossil embedded in soft, powdery shale that had been exposed by excavation of a hillside next to a highway in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2006.

"I was scanning the exposure and noticed what at first I thought was a piece of oyster shell spanning across a small erosion valley," Hall was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

"Only about an inch or two was exposed. I almost passed it up thinking it was oyster, but realised it was more tan-coloured like bone. I started uncovering it and realised it was the jaw to something but I had no idea what.

"It was upside down and when I turned over the snout portion it was nothing but a long row of teeth sockets, which was very exciting."

Paleontologists later told Hall it was a pterosaur -- a group of flying reptiles commonly referred to as pterodactyls -- and an important find.

Such "winged lizards", as their name suggests, are thought to have dominated the skies from more than 200 million years ago until the mass extinction event 65 million years ago that wiped them out along with most dinosaurs and many other plants and animals.

Aetodactylus halli is also one of the youngest members of the pterosaur family Ornithocheiridae.

The mandible, which is about 15 inches long, originally contained 54 slender, pointed teeth, but only two remained in their sockets when discovered, according to paleontologist Timothy S Myers of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, who identified and named the animal.

From the way the teeth were spaced, the researchers suspect the upper and lower teeth interlaced when the jaws were closed. Just the fact that this pterosaur had teeth was somewhat surprising as all North American pterosaurs were toothless from that time period, except for Coloborhynchus.

When Aetodactylus halli was alive, much of Texas was cloaked by the Western Interior Seaway the massive sea that split North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. On shore, the terrain was flat and dotted with flowering plants, according to paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs, associate professor of Earth Sciences at SMU.

"There were still conifers and ferns as well, but mostly of the sort that had tiny needle leaves, like junipers," Jacobs said. "Sycamores and their relatives would have been among the flowering plants."

The team describes the flying reptile in the latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


First Published: Friday, April 30, 2010, 18:48

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