Originally unearthed in the 1980s, two bones dating to 107 million years ago were recently confirmed as the oldest pterosaur fossils ever found in Australia.
In a study published last week in Historical Biology, paleontologists analyzed the pair of tiny bones, which were discovered at the fossil-rich site called Dinosaur Cove in the state of Victoria. One is part of a pterosaur pelvis bone, and the other—a first-of-its-kind find—is a small wing bone from a juvenile.
“For the first time, we’ve found a juvenile pterosaur,” Tim Richards, a paleobiologist at the University of Queensland’s “Dino Lab” who wasn’t involved in the new research, tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Anna Salleh. “We knew they existed, but we’ve never described one from Australia before.”
Pterosaurs were the Earth’s first flying vertebrates. They have been discovered on every continent, including Antarctica, and lived between about 65 and 220 million years ago. But finding a pterosaur fossil is rare, because their fragile, bird-like bones do not stay preserved very easily, per the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And bones found in areas that would have been far from the equator millions of years ago—such as Antarctica and Australia, which were part of the Gondwana supercontinent—are even more uncommon.
The newly examined fossils give researchers “a better idea as to where pterosaurs lived and how big they were,” lead researcher Adele Pentland, a geochemist at Curtin University in Australia, says in a statement.
Pterosaurs varied considerably in size—one of the tiniest, Nemicolopterus crypticus, was about the size of an American Robin. But the largest, Quetzalcoatlus, had a bus-sized wingspan of 37 to 40 feet. The bones in the new study likely belonged to a juvenile with a wingspan of 3.3 feet and an adult with a wingspan of at least 6.5 feet, though scientists don’t know the exact species each of the bones belonged to.
So far, only four pterosaur species have been found in Australia from the remains of fewer than 25 individuals, Pentland tells CNN’s Chris Lau. In comparison, paleontologists in Brazil and Argentina have uncovered more than 100 sets of pterosaur remains from single sites, per the publication.
The bones prompt more questions into the lives of these reptiles, especially because Victoria would have been located in the Antarctic circle when pterosaurs ruled the skies.
“Sedimentary geology is telling us that these animals potentially lived in darkness for weeks, if not months, throughout the year,” Pentland tells the Guardian’s Donna Lu. “Did pterosaurs tough it out in these harsh conditions—were they permanent year-round residents—or could they migrate? We don’t know.”
To answer those questions, paleontologists would need to find evidence of pterosaur eggs or newly hatched individuals, since previous research has shown these prehistoric animals could fly from a very young age, she tells Evrim Yazgin of Cosmos.
The bones were initially uncovered by co-authors Tom Rich and Pat Vickers-Rich decades ago as they were excavating in the fossil-filled site they dubbed Dinosaur Cove. Thousands of dinosaur bones and remains of other animals have been found at that site since then, including fossil fish, plesiosaurs and prehistoric mammals, write Pentland and co-author Stephen F. Poropat, a Curtin University paleontologist, for the Conversation.
“It is only a matter of time before we find more complete pterosaur material from Dinosaur Cove and other Cretaceous sites from coastal Victoria,” they write. “Then, we can finally uncover the identity of these ancient, enigmatic winged reptiles.”