Northern pterosaurs – 150 things about Canadian palaeo, part 18

In the series of 150 things about Canadian palaeontology, I haven’t touched on the one thing I work on very much: pterosaurs. This is for a few reasons, one is that I’ve kind of covered this before, but also because there really just aren’t a lot. For this reason, this post is going to be short, but I’m going to hit a few of my favourites. So, starting with 137/150, what pterosaurs have been found in Canada?

137. Last year, a pterosaur bone was described by yours truly and co-authors from the Late Cretaceous of Hornby Island, British Columbia. The Hornby pterosaur is pretty cool, because even though it’s known from just a handful of bones, this animal is a small-bodied, seemingly mature, Late Cretaceous pterosaur. This time period is best known for the giant azhdarchid pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus, but increasing evidence suggests that small pterosaurs were around too. Also, my friend Mark Witton did this super cute reconstruction just to show how big it was…

Look at that cutie! Image by Mark Witton.

Don’t fear, we have big pterosaurs too. And Albertan pterosaurs! Back to the theme of most Cretaceous fossils being found in Alberta, the vast majority of the Canadian pterosaur finds come from Alberta, and the remaining material I’m going to talk about is from the Late Cretaceous of Alberta.

138. Probably my favourite Albertan pterosaur is a partial skeleton of an azhdarchid pterosaur that was originally described in 1994. This specimen consists of several wing bones, a vertebra, and a leg bone from an animal that was probably something like 5m in wingspan. Other than the fact that it is a partial skeleton, which is rare for Alberta pterosaurs, there are 2 other features that make this specimen interesting: it is preserved quite well and in 3D; and it has bite marks and a tooth embedded in one of the bones! This is thought to be from a small theropod dinosaur called Saurornitholestes, which was probably scavenging on the carcass after it died. This pterosaur is currently being studied and its taxonomy (the specific scientific name we give it) is currently debated.

Small theropod tooth can be see sticking out along with jagged bite marks on this pterosaur bone from Alberta.

139. Isolated cervical (neck) vertebrae are one of the most commonly found bits of pterosaur, and one of these is truly gigantic. Originally identified as a pterosaur femur (upper leg bone), this mostly likely represents a partially preserved cervical of an azhdarchid pterosaur. The middle sized vertebra in the picture is from the specimen above (5m wingspan), meaning the large one was pretty big.

Three sizes of pterosaur cervical vertebrae. The largest on the top is lacking the articular surfaces, but is more like an azhdarchid cervical than anything else I’m aware of!

140. The northernmost Canadian pterosaur fossil comes from the Wapiti River, near Grande Prairie, Alberta, but rather than a typical body fossil, this is a trace fossil. In particular, it is represents a right manus (hand) print, and is the largest pterosaur print in North America, coming from an animal with an estimated wingspan of just under 8m.

141. Ok this one isn’t a Canadian pterosaur, but the description of it is an all-Canadian pterosaur team, and it currently resides in the University of Alberta Palaeontology Museum. This Pteranodon is one of my favourite specimens, partially because I got to help describe it, but also because it is such an amazing specimen. Nearly complete Pteranodon are rare, despite being known from hundreds of fossils from Kansas and its surroundings, which makes this guy super cool.

Pteranodon on display in the University of Alberta. Image from Martin-Silverstone et al. 2017.

That was just a super quick note about some pterosaur fossils from Canada or being worked on by Canadians. In general, there aren’t a lot of pterosaur fossils in Canada, and those that are found tend to be poor quality, which is probably why no one has really specialised in pterosaurs from Canada before. Pterosaur finds tend to be something that people work on in addition to their other material, or researchers from outside of Canada do the work. This is part of why I’ve ended up in the UK where there is more material, and more access to pterosaur material.

Not sure what my final post(s) will be on yet, but we’re just about done the 150 Canadian palaeo things series. Until next time!

The series:

Part 1: Intro

Part 2: The Burgess Shale

Part 3: Early Canadian Palaeontologists

Part 4: Canadian Fossil Names

Part 5: Dinosaur Provincial Park

Part 6: Marine Fossils

Part 7: Current Canadian Palaeos (1)

Part 8: Dinosaur Fossil Localities

Part 9: Palaeontology Museums

Part 10: Joggins Fossil Cliffs

Part 11: Significant Canadian Fossils

Part 12: Current Canadian Palaeos (2)

Part 13: Mistaken Point

Part 14: Palaeobotany

Part 15: Early Fossil Sites

Part 16: Miguasha National Park

Part 17: Where can I study palaeo in Canada?

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