During the age of dinosaurs, a winged beast dubbed the "iron dragon" soared above Australia. This fish-eating pterosaur hunted in rivers and lakes, according to scientists who found that continent's most complete fossil representing the flying reptiles called pterosaurs.
This pterosaur named Ferrodraco lentoni left behind fossils that were unearthed in the Australian state of Queensland, Paleontologists said on Thursday. It lived about 96 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period and boasted a 13-foot (4-meter) wingspan, a bony crest at the tip of its upper and lower jaws, and spike-shaped teeth perfect for eating fish.
Ferrodraco means "iron dragon," an apt name, according to the researchers.
"The 'iron dragon' seemed fitting, given that this animal would have been one of the top predators of the skies during the Cretaceous. Moreover, without the preservation of the bones in ironstone, it's unlikely that we would have recovered this fossil material in the first place," said palaeontologist Adele Pentland of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Natural History Museum.
The biggest of the pterosaurs had a 35-foot (10.7-meter) wingspan. These creatures lived worldwide alongside the dinosaurs during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. Both pterosaurs and dinosaurs were extinct after an asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago.
"Pterosaurs are quite rare in the fossil record, and are often incomplete, as their bones are hollow and the cortical bone is quite thin," said Pentland, lead author of the research published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Until now, most of Australia's pterosaur remains have been isolated and fragmentary fossils. In this case, researchers discovered a partial skull, five cervical vertebrae, elements from both wings and 40 isolated teeth and tooth fragments. While it amounted to roughly 10% of its skeleton, it was enough to reveal a lot about the pterosaur.
"This pterosaur gives us a better understanding of the pterosaurs that lived in Australia during the mid-Cretaceous," Pentland said.
The research surmised that Ferrodraco lived in a forested environment around the lake and river systems. It existed alongside the meat-eating dinosaur Australovenator and long-necked four-legged plant-eaters Savannasaurus and Diamantinasaurus, as well as crocodile relatives and other animals.
Analysis of the fossil revealed that it was more closely related to pterosaurs from England than from South America even though dinosaurs and other land vertebrates at the time in Australia generally demonstrated close ties to South American lineages.