Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Lords of the air

Ever since I was a kid, my favorite group of dinosaurs has been the pterosaurs.

These are one of the six groups of animals that independently evolved flight, or at least significant capacity for gliding (the others are insects, birds, bats, flying squirrels, sugar gliders, and colugos).  They had incredible diversity at their height, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, from the pint-sized Sordes pilosus (with a sixty-centimeter wingspan) to the almost unimaginably huge Quetzalcoatlus northropi (with a ten-meter wingspan, as big as a light plane).

Most of them were probably clumsy on the ground -- it's hard to imagine how Quetzalcoatlus got off the ground -- but in the air, they were nimble, maneuverable, and fast.  The smaller ones were probably insect-eaters; the larger ones likely fed on fish, although a terrestrial diet of small reptiles and mammals is also possible. 

What brings all this up is the discovery of a new species of pterosaur, one of dozens that have been identified from the Jehol Biota, a stupendous fossil deposit in northeastern China near Huludao.  This fossil bed has produced not only pterosaurs but incredibly well-preserved species of prehistoric birds and other vertebrates -- it's like a tapestry of late Cretaceous animal life.

"Pterosaurs comprise an important and enigmatic group of Mesozoic flying reptiles that first evolved active flight among vertebrates, and have filled all aerial environmental niches for almost 160 million years," said Xiaolin Wang, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who co-authored the paper describing the discovery.  "Despite being a totally extinct group, they have achieved a wide diversity of forms in a window of time spanning from the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous period.  Notwithstanding being found on every continent, China stands out by furnishing several new specimens that revealed not only different species, but also entire new clades."

This includes the newly-discovered Meilifeilong youhao, belonging to the family Chaoyangopteridae, which is represented at the site by two other species that have been found nowhere else.

Meilifeilong looked like something out of a nightmare, if the artist's reconstruction is accurate (and probably even if it isn't):

[Image courtesy of artist Maurilio Oliveira]

The name means "beautiful flying dragon," which I doubt is what I'd say if I saw one, but what I'd say is borderline unprintable so we'll leave it at that.

It's astonishing to think of how long these creatures ruled the skies -- from the late Triassic until the very end of the Cretaceous, a time span of around 160 million years.  Had change not come in the form of the Chicxulub Meteorite collision, they might well still be here, soaring on thermals above our forests and lakes and oceans, the undisputed lords of the air.  And even if we now know them only from fossils, they still can't help but impress.


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