A new species of giant flying reptile that soared 75 million years ago over what is now North America has been identified by scientists studying a cache of bones unearthed in Canada.
The creature, called Cryodrakon boreas or Frozen Dragon of the North Winds, is similar to the largest known pterosaurs, and is among “the most popular and charismatic of all fossil animals,” according to Michael Habib, assistant professor of Integrative Anatomical Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California (USC) and research associate at the Dinosaur Institute of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
The flying reptile had a wingspan that stretched at least 16 feet and lived in what is now western Canada about 75 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period.
“They have been inspiration for countless movie monsters, they were critical parts of global ecosystems worldwide during the Age of Dinosaurs, so they are key to understanding the ecology and extinctions of that time, and, just like flying animals today, they could carry important clues about how animals at the time responded to major changes in climate,” Habib said.
The pterosaur’s bones have been known to scientists for nearly three decades, but it has only now been confirmed as its own genus. The researchers describe the findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Paleontologists had assumed assumed that the fossils belonged to a pterosaur called Quetzalcoatlus northropi, study coauthor Dave Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London, told National Geographic. That animal, like the newly described Cryodrakon boreas, belong to a group known as the azhdarchid pterosaurs, which were notable for being mostly head and neck, and known primarily from limited and fragmentary remains, which also makes them difficult to classify or understand their behavior and biology.
The researchers examined a collection of bones comprising much of a skeleton, dug up from Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park in 1992. The fossils are better preserved than other azhdarchid fossils, according to a USC news release.
In studying the fossils, the scientists noted key differences in the shape of vertebrae, cervical bones, and leg bones, which would have affected the spinal column, shape of the legs and size of the creature.
The scientists found that Cryodrakon was about the same size, and looked similar to Quetzalcoatlus, but was likely heavier and more robust. That’s an important finding because it challenges classic reconstructions of these animals as ultralight soaring specialists. Instead, Cryodrakon may have been extra-muscular ground hunter that used flight to burst away from danger.
“This particular group of pterosaurs includes the largest flying animals of all time,” Habib said. “Their anatomy holds important clues about the limits of animal flight and may be important in the future for biologically inspired mechanical design for flight.”
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