In a patch of Utah desert no larger than a living room, scientists working a decade ago discovered a late Triassic treasure trove: 18,000 bones from nine unusual species of reptiles, all victims of a watering hole that dried up some 201 million to 210 million years ago. Now, they’re reporting on the most interesting find to date: the oldest ever pterosaur. The find is especially unusual because ancient flying reptiles of that era were thought to live in coastal areas.
Caelestiventus hanseni, whose genus name is Latin for “heavenly wind,” had a wing span of about 1.5 meters (similar to modern-day ospreys) and a flange of bone suggesting it sported a fleshy wattle under its chin—or possibly a small pouch like today’s pelicans. The discovery—which included bits of the skull, jawbone, and a finger bone from its wing—pushes back the record of desert-dwelling pterosaurs a whopping 65 million years, the researchers report online today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Despite the special bone flange under its jaw (seen in the reconstructed skull, above), Caelestiventus probably didn’t eat fish, as pelicans do; the desert oasis where it died apparently hosted only reptiles.