Dino soars: 95-million-year-old bones found of flyer

Thu, May 27, 2010, 01:00

FOSSIL HUNTERS working in Morocco and led by a University College Dublin scientist have unearthed a completely new species of flying dinosaur.

 The 95-million-year-old bones claim the record as the oldest yet found for this group of animals.

“Before you go, you dream of finding something special,” said expedition leader and UCD doctoral research scholar Nizar Ibrahim in relation to the remarkable find in southeastern Morocco, near the border with Algeria.

He brought the research team, including scientists from the UK and Morocco, to the Kem Kem Plateau. An arid wasteland today, it would have been a lush river basin full of tropical plants and prey animals in the days of the flying dinosaurs or pterodactyls.

The scientist knew this landscape carried a higher chance of finding the low density bones of pterosaurs that needed to be flimsy and lightweight for flight. “We heard of this locality that nobody had explored before,” Mr Ibrahim said. The team managed to find a pterosaur jawbone fossil broken into three pieces, and a partial neck vertebra. Details of the new species, Alanqa saharica, appear today in the peer-reviewed online publication PLoS ONE.

The new name comes from the Arabic word al-anqa, Mr Ibrahim said, referring to the phoenix. The bone pieces show it to be a new species within the larger azhdarchid group. “The interesting thing about the azhdarchids is they included the largest pterosaurs that ever lived,” Mr Ibrahim said.

The largest, quetzalcoatlus, had a wingspan of 10m.

“They appeared late in the age of the dinosaurs, and we don’t have many fossils of animals from this group.”

The find ranks as the oldest of the azhdarchids yet discovered, he added.

Alanqa saharica was no slouch in terms of size, with an estimated wingspan of six metres.

This pterosaur is different from all others because of its lance-shaped lower jaw, Mr Ibrahim noted.

It had no teeth and looked rather like “a heron”.

The team also found fossils of two other previously identified types of pterosaur, important discoveries in their own right.