Large shadows fell on Cretaceous landscape

Paleontologists digging at a quarry in eastern Spain have unearthed remains of

what they believe could be the largest flying animal yet discovered. The

researchers estimate that the adult wingspan of the ancient reptile ranged from 5

meters to as much as 12 m–larger than that of an F-16 fighter aircraft.

David M. Unwin, a vertebrate paleontologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, says

he and his colleagues have exhumed as many as 40 bones or bone fragments of what

appears to be a new species of giant pterosaur. Most of the well-preserved

fragments were pieces of vertebrae and neck bones from adult animals.

The scientists recovered the 70-million-year-old fossils–along with those of fish, crocodiles, and dinosaurs–from a 3-m-thick layer of siltstone in a quarry near La Solana, about 40 kilometers southwest of Valencia. Unwin reported the team’s findings last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Bozeman, Mont.

The broad array of sizes among mature members of the newly found pterosaur species

mirrors a trend apparent in at least four other species of giant flying reptile,

but not in most living animals. In these pterosaurs, the size range of bones

suggests that the largest adults were from two to three times the size of the

smallest ones. If that were true among people, there could be 12-foot-tall

professional basketball players.

“Pterosaurs had a weird growth pattern,” says Timothy Rowe, a vertebrate

paleontologist at the University of Texas at Austin. The small individuals found

at La Solana may still have been growing, he notes. Also, the Spanish cache of

fossils may be too fragmentary for paleontologists to claim that the newly found

species is bigger than Quetzalcoatlus northropi. A single, almost complete

specimen of Q. northropi unearthed in Texas in 1971 represents a pterosaur with a wingspan of 11 m.

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