New Pterosaur Fossil Identified in British Columbia

January 17, 2011- By Jen Noelken

University of Alberta paleontologist Victoria Arbour received the distinct honor of identifying a new prehistoric species.  A fossil found on British Columbia’s Hornby Island was identified as a pterosaur.  Pterosaur comes from the Greek word ‘Pteron’ meaning wing and ‘Sauros’ meaning lizard.  The flying or winged lizard is the first of its kind found in British Columbia and only the second species of pterosaur found in Canada.

The reptile fossil jawbone was discovered off the Pacific Coast on Hornby Island by well known fossil collector Graham Beard.  Beard runs the Vancouver Island Paleontological Museum in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.  He discovered the fossil after breaking open a rock.  Arbour explains fossils are not easy to find in British Columbia.  Fossil hunters comb the beach cracking open rocks with the hopes of discovering a fossil inside.

After his discovery, Beard passed the jawbone to dinosaur expert and Arbour’s supervisor, Philip Currie.  In turn, Currie passed the jawbone to Arbour with the task of identifying the fossil. 

Arbour, whose findings will appear in the January issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Science, “examined the fossil’s distinctive, arrow-like teeth attached to the jawbone and compared them to the teeth of various dinosaurs, marine reptiles, lizards, fish and birds.”  Initially, Arbour didn’t feel the fossil could be a pterosaur because known pterosaurs during the Cretaceous period did not have teeth.  With prompting from a friend to explore the possibility of the fossil being pterosaurs, Arbour finally found a paper on a Chinese pterosaur from the early Cretaceous period showing similar teeth.  Continued research ruled out all other possibilities except for pterosaurs. 

Pterosaurs existed from the Triassic period to the late Cretaceous period about 228 to 65 million years ago.  They are categorized by two groups.  The earlier pterosaurs are known as rhamphorhycnchoids or basal Pterosauria.  The basal Pterosauria first appeared during the Late Triassic period and went extinct at the end of the Jurassic period.  The later are called pterodactyloids which include the well known pterodactyl.  The pterodactyloids first appeared during the Late Jurassic period with the last dying out during the end of the Cretaceous period   “However, both of the two groups together formed the monophyletic group.”  Anurognathus are the smallest known species discovered, no larger than a sparrow.  Quetzalcoatlus are the largest known species with a massive wingspan of 36 feet and very thick wing bones.

At one time research believed that these flying reptiles relied more on gliding rather than active flight.  Further research and analysis on the skeletal features suggests that all but the largest pterosaurs could fly.  “Pterosaurs had hollow bones, large brains with well-developed optic lobes, and several crests on their bones to which flight muscles attached.  All of this is consistent with powered flapping flight.” 

Victoria Arbour’s new species was named, in part, after founder Graham Beard, the pterosaur Gwawinapterus beardi.  Gwawinapterus derives from a combination of ‘Gwa’wina’ meaning raven in Kwak’wala (the native language of indigenous people of Hornby Island) and the Greek ‘pteron.’  The jawbones size gives insight into a potential wingspan of three meters.  However, more bones would be needed to give a more accurate wingspan and size of the reptile.  Other findings suggest the reptile used its long snout and piranha-like teeth to nibble food away from bone and possibly hunted small dinosaurs, lizards or fish.  Gwawinapterus beardi was most likely a scavenger of the late Cretaceous period.

Paleontologists hope that the new finding will open the way for more like findings.  Now that people know pterosaurs fossils exist in the area, they will be more aware of the possibility for discovery.

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