Science & Technology

Jurassic pterosaur fossils found for 1st time in S. Hemisphere

Santiago, Sep 13 (EFE).- A long tail ending in a rhombus-shaped tip and sharp teeth pointing toward the front of the beak are a few of the peculiarities of Rhamphorhynchus, or “ranforrincos,” a type of pterosaur from the Jurassic period known as the “flying dragon” that has now been identified for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The find was made by a team of researchers from the University of Chile in 2009 near the city of Calama, where other fossil discoveries have been made, mainly of the marine fauna that lived in the region at the end of the Jurassic, a time when South America was part of the Gondwana megacontinent.

After years of analysis, the University of Chile has now announced that researchers have determined that the Rhamphorhynchus specimen found 12 years ago was not a prehistoric marine animal but rather a flying reptile that lived in that part of the planet some 160 million years ago, during the Jurassic period.

The fossilized remains consist of “a left humerus, a possible dorsal vertebrae and two fragments of a wing phalange, all preserved in three dimensions and probably belonging to a single individual,” said Jhonatan Alarcon, the paleontologist who headed the investigation.

He said that the portions of the individual’s body that were unearthed are sufficient to determine that this was a pterosaur that was quite widespread during that epoch, probably much like the members of the Rhamphorhynchinae group known from Northern Hemisphere fossils.

“These pterosaurs had very large wings from tip to tip of up to 1.8 or 2 meters (5.9 – 6.5 feet). Our specimen is rather large, comparable to Rhamphorhynchus, which is the largest member of this family, or perhaps even larger,” said Alarcon in a statement.

He commented that these “winged dragons” were characterized by “having a very long tail and with a peculiar tip in the form of a rhombus, they possessed … long snouts and sharply pointed teeth pointing toward the front.”

“Based on the size, particularly of the humerus, which one sees is very developed, and also based on comparisons with other examples, we can say that this corresponds to an adult or to a state very close to the adult phase,” Alarcon said.

He added that “other bones” were also found “in the area … material that is still being studied to determine if this specimen corresponds to a new species or not, something that is the most probable” situation.

This is the first “100 percent confirmed” example of the Rhamphorhynchinae sub-family to be discovered in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically in territory from the ancient megacontinent known as Gondwana, Alarcon said, adding that it’s the first pterosaur from the Jurassic found to date in Chile and – moreover – the oldest representative of these flying lizards ever found in the South American country.

“Pterosaurs from the Jurassic have already been found in South America, but this is the first one discovered in Chile. Also, it’s preserved in a three-dimensional way, which is rare, since pterosaurs in general are preserved with their bones flattened, because they had very delicate … bones, adapted for (flying),” he said.

The identification of this pterosaur, the first ancient animal found in the ancient coastal ecosystem that was not strictly aquatic, adds to the evidence strongly linking the fauna of Gondwana (comprising what is now South America, Antarctica, Africa, Madagascar, India and Australis) and Laurasia (made up mainly of North America, Asia and Europe).

“This find adds evidence to the connection that existed between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, particularly via a Caribbean passage that existed in the Jurassic, that was taken advantage of by marine reptiles like the genus Muraenosaurus, found in the United Kingdom, France and Argentina, and Vinialesaurus, found in marine deposits in Cuba,” the paleontologist concluded.


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