SEPTEMBER 10, 2019
An enormous reptile discovered in Alberta, Canada, is one of the biggest flying creatures ever discovered, with a wingspan of up to 32 feet—roughly double the height of an average giraffe. The species, which has been named Cryodrakon boreas, lived about 77 million years ago and may well have fed on small animals such as lizards and baby dinosaurs.
The fossilized remains were first found over 30 years ago but previously assigned to a different flying species of pterosaur—Quetzalcoatlus. This was another giant flying reptile, which weighed up to 550 lbs and had a wingspan of up to 34 feet.
Over the last three decades, as more ancient remains were uncovered, researchers realized there were key differences between the two species. In a study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, researchers have now named and described the new species.
Both Quetzalcoatlus and Cryodrakon are types of azhdarchid—a family of pterosaurs that lived during the late Cretaceous Period. These creatures had long necks and stork-like bills. While most species were extremely large, researchers have recently identified a cat-sized azhdarchid.
In the latest study, David Hone, from the Queen Mary University of London, and colleagues showed how the neck bones in the newly identified species are shorter and wider than in Quetzalcoatlus, while Cryodrakon has a thinner humerus. “Really as soon as I started looking in detail it was clear there were some differences between the two,” he told Newsweek. “I think a fair number of researchers have suspected as much for a while, but sitting down to do the work and getting into the details takes time.”
The team said that Cryodrakon and Quetzalcoatlus were probably of a similar size and build, with a similar flight performance and muscles. Combined with the somewhat greater length of the humerus in Cryodrakon, it is likely that Cryodrakon was slightly heavier than Quetzalcoatlus, but their overall mass was likely similar.
Azhdarchids were found across the globe, with species identified on almost every continent. Despite probably being able to cross oceans, azhdarchids tended to stay around land. They are believed to have been predators and, because of their limited mouth size—with the beak being very long and thin—it is thought they tended to eat small prey.
Cryodrakon was mainly identified from the fossil of a juvenile and scientists used this to estimate its size as an adult. Potentially, Hone said, there could have been larger individuals, but finding evidence of this is unlikely.
“Finding any bone is good, finding a good one of a giant animal is going to be unlikely,” he said. “The biggest azhdarchids may have pushed the limit [of] how big a flying animal you can have but Cryodrakon, while probably not the largest—based on what we have—is certainly in the mix of these giant animals.”