CanadaNew 'frozen dragon' pterosaur found hiding in plain sight
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In the icy badlands of Alberta, paleontologists have found a “frozen dragon”: a new genus of pterosaur that once soared over the heads of dinosaurs with a wingspan that stretched at least 16 feet. The flying reptile—named Cryodrakon boreas—lived in what is now western Canada about 76 million years ago, during what’s known as the Cretaceous period.
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“The animal, when alive, would not have been a frozen dragon,” notes study coauthor, a paleontologist at the University of Southern California. “It would have flying in a landscape that would have been reasonably temperate ... but a hell of a lot warmer than central Alberta is now.”
The pterosaur’s bones have been known to scientists for nearly three decades, but it has only now been confirmed as its own genus, researchers announced on Tuesday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“For me, as a Canadian who also works on pterosaurs, it’s pretty cool to get an actual name for an animal that’s been kicking around for a while,” says paleontologist, a research associate at the University of Bristol who wasn’t involved with the study.
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For a long time, paleontologists had instead assumed that the fossils belonged to a pterosaur called Quetzalcoatlus northropi, says study coauthor, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London. Both animals belong to a group known as the azhdarchid (azh-DAHR-kid) pterosaurs, which were notable for being mostly head and neck.
A closeup shows the spine and tail bristles on an incredibly well-preserved fossil of the herbivorous dinosaur Psittacosaurus mongoliensis, on display at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. These bristles are likely related to the feathers found on other dinosaurs and may have been used for communication and display. The dark material seen here is the preserved remains of soft tissue, such as skin.
Sinosauropteryx prima, from China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, was found in 1996 and is recognized as the first known feathered dinosaur. The discovery of downy plumage – seen here as dark fuzz surrounding the fossil – shook the foundations of paleontology; many dinosaur experts were already convinced that birds descended from dinosaurs, but here was the feathery proof turned to stone. More than 50 other species of dinosaur have been found with impressions or other evidence of feathers in the past few decades.
The fossil deposits of Liaoning, China, not only preserve dinosaurs, but also early birds, such as these delicate and beautiful specimens of the 120- to 125-million-year-old species Confuciusornis sanctus. This bird – noted for its two long, ribbon-like tail feathers – is one of the most commonly discovered animals in the Yixian and Jiufotang formations of the early Cretaceous, with many hundreds of specimens now in Chinese museums. This means researchers can ask questions about variation within the population, an unusual opportunity in a fossil species.
At about 200 million years old, the dainty carnivore Coelophysis bauri was one of the earliest dinosaurs to live in the U.S. Southwest. This late Triassic species, which is the state fossil of New Mexico, reached up to 9.8 feet in length but weighed just 33 to 44 pounds. This specimen has its head twisted back over its spine in what is known as the “death pose” – a common position for fossilized dinosaurs that is possibly caused by the contraction of muscles and ligament after death.
These eggs belonged to sauropods, giant long-necked dinosaurs that grew to be the largest land animals that ever lived. While sauropod eggs have been found across the world, from Spain and France to Argentina and the United States, these particular specimens still embedded in rock hail from China. Dinosaur eggs are usually found in groups and would have been laid in depressions in the ground. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the species, but sauropod eggs are typically round and about the size of a grapefruit.
A skull of the late Jurassic predatory dinosaur Allosaurus fragilis remains encased in rock in the Quarry Exhibit Hall of the Dinosaur National Monument in Jensen, Utah. The apex carnivore of its time, Allosaurus terrorized the western United States about 150 to 155 million years ago.
Protoceratops andrewsi, an early relative of the horned dinosaur Triceratops, is seen on display at CosmoCaixa Barcelona as part of an exhibit of dinosaurs from Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Sheep-size Protoceratops was a major prey animal for the turkey-size Velociraptor mongoliensis, and remarkable fossils of the two have sometimes been found locked in combat.
Exhibition workers put the finishing touches on an anatomically precise, life-size reconstruction of a Spinosaurus aegypticus skeleton created from digital models of the fossil bones. The 50-foot-long model went on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., in September 2014 as the centerpiece of the “Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous” exhibition.
This closeup shows the formidable teeth and jaws of a female Tyrannosaurus rex known as ‘Trix,” which is on display at the Natural History Museum of Leiden in the Netherlands. Excavated in 2013 in Montana by museum scientists, the fossil skeleton is more than 80 percent complete, ranking it among the top T. rex specimens in the world.
This picture shows armored plates on the spectacularly complete fossil of an ankylosaur named Borealopelta markmitchelli; the lighter bands represent more flexible tissue between this dinosaur’s tough defensive exterior. Discovered in 2011 at an oil sands mine in the Canadian state of Alberta, the fossil bears a crack from the impact of a tractor shovel. Thankfully, it was rescued from the mining machinery before more damage occurred. After six years and 7,000 hours of preparation, it is now on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum.
This unusual skull comes from a relative of Triceratops named Kosmoceratops richardsoni. This rhino-size ceratopsian dinosaur lived on the late Cretaceous landmass of Laramidia, which is today the western part of North America. Kosmoceratops means “ornamented horned face,” and the species has 15 horns and frills on its skull, which were likely used to attract mates or battle rivals rather than defend against predators.
Two sets of footprints at the Moenkopi Dinosaur Tracks in Arizona were likely left by a mother and a young Dilophosaurus wetherilli about 193 million years ago – an evocative record of dinosaur behavior from the early Jurassic period. These narrow, three-toed footprints are typical of carnivorous theropod dinosaurs.
As winds and rain pound surface layers of sediment, they slowly expose any dinosaur fossils encased within, which are made of more hardy material. Here, a two-foot-long section of the tail of a duck-billed hadrosaur emerges from sandstone. Some of the world’s best fossil-hunting locales are badlands, where surface sediments are rapidly eroded by weathering.
This cast of Triceratops horridus resides at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. Triceratops was the first known horned dinosaur, or ceratopsian, described in 1889. More than 80 other species of ceratopsians have now been described, the vast majority from western North America, and new finds are revealed every year.
A close-up shows the tail region of the early Cretaceous Chinese dinosaur, Sinornithosaurus millenii. This feathered dromaeosaur relative of Velociraptor had ossified tendons in its tail anchored by its vertebrae or backbones. These narrow bony rods stiffened the tail, improving balance and aiding maneuverability for this fleet-footed, predatory species.
A set of dinosaur tracks crosses the Valley of the Dinosaurs in Sousa, northeastern Brazil. While fossilized dinosaur bones tell us about the anatomy of these long-extinct animals, so-called ichnofossils such as footprints, teeth marks, nest scrapes, and coprolites (dung) give us important clues to the behavior and lives of ancient species.
This skull of the dinosaur Velociraptor mongoliensis comes from the early Cretaceous formations in Mongolia’s Gobi desert. Made famous by the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, these dromaeosaurs were much smaller in real life than what’s been depicted in the film and its sequels, reaching just 1.6 feet high and likely weighing little more than about 33 pounds.
The name of this species, Mei long, comes from the Chinese for “soundly sleeping dragon,” reflecting the fact that this remarkable fossil captures a rare and peaceful moment of dinosaur behavior. Seen here from underneath, this troodontid is tucked up in the roosting position familiar from modern birds, with its head nestled under its forearm. The folded-up feet and legs run right-left in this image, with the tail wrapped across the top.
Stitched together from a number of images, this panorama shows the massive reconstruction of a titanosaur sauropod installed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in January 2016. This 122-foot behemoth may be the largest dinosaur that ever lived and was described as a new species dubbed Patagotitan mayorum in 2017, based on a number of fossils excavated from the Chubut region of Patagonia in Argentina.
A detail shows the feet and claws of a near-complete specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex dubbed Tristan Otto, which is on display at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. In life these claw bones would have been covered with keratin sheaths, akin to the claws of a cat, but much larger and capable of inflicting far more significant damage.
This cast of the extravagantly crested duck-billed hadrosaur Parasaurolophus walkeri is on display at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. The nasal passages and forehead of this species extend to the rear of its head, forming a six-foot-long hollow, bony crest. This is thought to have been used as a resonance chamber, akin to a wind instrument such as a trombone or trumpet, likely allowing the species to produce loud calls that carried over great distances.
This highly ornamented dinosaur, featured on the December 2007 cover of National Geographic magazine, was originally described as a new species called Dracorex hogwartsia, or “dragon king of Hogwarts” after the wizarding school in the Harry Potter books. However, subsequent research from several teams suggests that this unusual skull covered in spikes and knobs belongs to a juvenile form of the dome-headed dinosaur Pachycephalosaurus.
The azhdarchids are also known for reaching immense sizes, none more so than Quetzalcoatlus. When flying over what’s now Texas, the creature’s wingspan stretched more than 30 feet. When it was walking on the ground,, it was more than eight feet tall at the shoulder, .
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The discovery of Cryodrakon means North America was home to at least two genera of large azhdarchids, expanding our knowledge of ancient diversity and how the world’s largest flying creatures eked out a living.
The partial skeleton that defines Cryodrakon was. But its identity remained unclear for decades because of a paleontological paradox: Quetzalcoatlus might be the best-known and worst-known azhdarchid all at once.
Though Q. northropi was described in 1975, only one of its limb bones got a detailed writeup; the scientists who oversaw the giant’s remains never got around to publishing the rest. For 40 years, paleontologist Wann Langston worked off-and-on to complete the description—but then he died in 2013, leaving the work unfinished. An international team is currently trying to finish the job.
In the meantime, North American paleontologists have been caught in a catch-22. If they found pieces of what looked like a large Cretaceous azhdarchid, they provisionally assigned them to Quetzalcoatlus, because they didn’t know enough about Quetzalcoatlus to say anything different.
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“You’ve got this weird situation where Quetzalcoatlus is basically the first azhdarchid to be named, so it becomes the definition of the [group], and yet there’s no good description of it,” says Hone, who describes the situation as “a giant loop of not being able to solve the problem properly.”
Two key advances offered a way off the Quetzalcoatlus merry-go-round. In the past 15 years, paleontologists have found more types of azhdarchids in, , , , , and elsewhere, giving a much better reference for diversity within this pterosaur group. In addition, a small number of researchers have since gotten the chance to see the Quetzalcoatlus fossils up close—including Habib, who measured the bones to model how the creature flew.
As a point of comparison, Habib visited Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum to see the partial pterosaur skeleton dug up in 1992, whose limb bone is among the best preserved in the world.
The remains first gained notoriety for their scars. The bones bear scratches and an embedded tooth that appear to be from a scavenger, most likely a relative of Velociraptor. But Habib soon saw more intriguing features. The more that he compared his measurements of Quetzalcoatlus to the Canadian fossil, the more he suspected it wasn’t Quetzalcoatlus at all.
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Game of bones
Because the Canadian remains make up a partial skeleton, Habib’s colleague Hone had enough material to place the pterosaur on the azhdarchid family tree. He then zoomed in on the neck vertebra, whose ends are shot through with pneumatophores, the holes through which air sacs once entered the bone’s interior.
The arrangement of these pneumatophores can help scientists tell pterosaur species apart. And when Habib, Hone, and Royal Tyrrell Museum paleontologist François Therrien compared the holes in the Canadian pterosaur’s neck vertebrae against those for all other known azhdarchids, they found that its arrangement is unique.
To recognize the modern climate in the region where this pterosaur once roamed, they named the new pterosaur Cryodrakon boreas, or “the cold dragon of the north winds.” Habib, a fan of the TV show Game of Thrones, had also suggested Cryodrakon viserion, a reference to one of the show’s dragons, in part because of its rise from the ice, and in part because the animal might have reached movie-monster proportions.
The main reference fossil for Cryodrakon belonged to an individual pterosaur that had a roughly 16-foot wingspan. But the researchers realized that a separate fossil at the Royal Tyrrell Museum—a smashed-up tube of bone 16 inches long—was the middle portion of a neck vertebra from an azhdarchid that probably had a wingspan of more than 30 feet.
With its ends broken off, that vertebra had avoided identification for years: Paleontologists had even once. Because the fossil is fragmentary, researchers can’t say for sure whether it belongs to Cryodrakon, but the neck vertebra is definitely from an azhdarchid, and Cryodrakon is now the only known azhdarchid from that place and time.
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“There is a 9- to 10-meter wingspan azhdarchid in this formation; whether or not that’s exactly the same as the one we’ve described, you can’t say 100-percent,” Hone says. “It’s like you go out to Africa, and you find some giant cat tooth—it’s probably a really big lion, but without the rest of the lion attached to it, it’s a tooth!”
Martin-Silverstone agrees with the cautious approach: “I think they’re right that it’s an azhdarchid [neck] vertebra—I’ve seen this specimen, and I completely agree that that’s what it is,” she says. “But I would be much more conservative in saying it’s Cryodrakon, because, yeah, there’s no features on that at all.”
More work on Cryodrakon may help crack the mystery and add more clues to this large pterosaur’s lifestyle. Habib, for one, still wants to use the limb measurements to calculate how it flew—the project that inadvertently turned up the frozen dragon in the first place.
Future analyses could even peer deeper inside the pterosaur’s bones., a paleontologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Espírito Santo who wasn’t involved with the study, says that taking thin sections of Cryodrakon bones could reveal how the pterosaur grew from hatchling to adult. Future fossils, she adds, could even test whether Cryodrakon varied in size based on sex.
“It’s amazing,” she says, “just to see how far we’re going.”
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