Ancient Wings Unearthed: 107-Million-Year-Old Fossil Pterosaur Bones Found at Dinosaur Cove, Australia’s Oldest Discovery

107-million-year-old fossil pterosaur bones found at Dinosaur Cove oldest ever discovered in Australia

A flying dragon with gigantic wings and fierce teeth is the stuff of myth, yet the prehistoric pterosaur is often compared to one.

Now, scientists have confirmed that 107-million-year-old fossils found in Victoria are the oldest remains of pterosaurs that soared across the Australian landscape.

Key points:

  • Pterosaurs lived at the same time as dinosaurs and were the first vertebrates to fly
  • Researchers confirm that two tiny fossils embedded in a seaside cliff in Victoria are the oldest pterosaur remains found in Australia
  • The partial pelvis bone fossil belonged to an adult pterosaur, with a small wing bone the first evidence of a juvenile pterosaur from Australia.

Pterosaurs were flying reptiles, that lived alongside their dinosaur cousins during the Mesozoic Era, which began 252 million years ago.

They were the first and largest vertebrates to fly — taking to the skies 65 million years before birds – and they lifted off using membranous wings that were more bat-like than bird-like.

Pterosaur fossils are very rare, especially in Australia.

That’s why palaeontologists were excited when two tiny fossils were found embedded in a seaside cliff near Cape Otway,  220 kilometres south-west of Melbourne in the 1980s.

The bones were discovered by a team led by veteran palaeontologists Tom Rich and Pat Vickers-Rich, who were responsible for naming the location ‘Dinosaur Cove’.

“We actually had to blast our way into [the] cliff and we cut tunnels and these two fossils come out of one of those tunnels,” said Dr Rich, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Museums Victoria.

“We moved about 600 tonnes of rock.”

The fossils, described formally for the first time today in the journal Historical Biology are a partial pelvis bone and a bone from the left wing — both of which fit in the palm of a hand.

For decades, the bones lay in Museums Victoria’s collection until palaeontology student Adele Pentland of Curtin University decided to formally describe and analyse them as part of her PhD.

Ms Pentland compared the fossils — which had previously been dated to 107 million years old —  with bones of other known pterosaurs.

She concluded that the pelvis bone belonged to an adult pterosaur with a a wingspan of at least 2 metres.

But the wing bone was very small compared with bones from adult pterosaurs, so she concluded it was from a juvenile pterosaur with a 1-metre wingspan.

Ms Pentland did not have enough material to say too much more about these animals.

“I wasn’t able to figure out where these sat in the family tree,” she said.

Still, this is the first evidence of a juvenile pterosaur to be found in Australia, and the first pterosaur remains to be found in Victoria.

The fossils are also rare because their location means the animals would have have experienced long dark polar winters.

“When these animals were alive, Victoria was much further south than it is today and it was within the polar circle,” Ms Pentland said.

“In spite of that, there were temperate forests inhabited by herbivorous dinosaurs, meat-eating theropod dinosaurs and pterosaurs.”

Not the biggest — but oldest, youngest and coldest

A pterosaur with a 2-metre wingspan is by no means the biggest. The worldwide record holder is Quetzalcoatlus northropi, discovered in Texas, North America, with a wingspan of 10 –11 metres.

The largest pterosaur reported in Australia so far is the Thapunngaka shawi, with a wingspan of around 7 metres, described in 2021 by University of Queensland researchers.

In 2019, Ms Pentland described a new species of Australian pterosaur called Ferrodraco lentoni, which had a wingspan of 4 metres.

The well-preserved fossil, which was found in Queensland, included several partial vertebrae, limb bones, part of the jaw and skull, and 40 teeth.

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Yet neither of these are as old as the bones in the latest analysis.

But it’s not just all about size

Tim Richards, University of Queensland’s ‘Dino Lab’, which discovered the beast with a 7-metre wingspan welcomed the evidence of Australia’s first polar pterosaur, and its youngest pterosaur.

“For the first time we’ve found a juvenile pterosaur. We knew they existed but we’ve never described one from Australia before,” said Mr Richards, who was not involved in the latest research.

He said the latest find would help in efforts to understand how pterosaurs grew up.

What we know already is that pterosaurs are ready to fly very soon after hatching but there is a downside to that.

“You have to start regulating your own body temperature, find your own food and fend off predators,” Mr Richards said.

This takes energy from actually growing, which is why pterosaurs slow in growth before they mature, he added.

Mr Richards is doing a PhD in the taxonomy and diversity of Australian pterosaurs and said one challenge in studying pterosaurs is their bones don’t preserve well.

“Pterosaur bones are adapted to flight. They’re very light and thin and that doesn’t hold up well over millions of years. They don’t preserve well.”

Kevin Padian, curator of the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology, said the latest research deserved “tremendous praise”.

“Dinosaur Cove is a really difficult quarry to work, and Tom and Pat and their colleagues have mined it for decades with amazing results,” said Professor Padian, who was not involved in the study

“This is a great reward from that tremendously painstaking study.”

Still, the discovery raises more questions than it answers.

What did the Dinosaur Cove pterosaurs really look like?

Did they have fangs or other kinds of teeth? Short skulls or a long ones? Did they sport crests on their heads?

“We just don’t know,” Mr Richards said.

Just like with birds, he said, there’s a “pretty huge” variation even with the same species and there’s not enough of the animal to know much more.

Ms Pentland is also interested in whether these pterosaurs were permanent residents of the polar regions and bred there, or migrated to escape the winter.

“We have a juvenile pterosaur, but to really answer that question we need evidence of pterosaur eggs or nearly-hatched pterosaurs.

“If we did more digs along the Victorian coast we might be able to find the fossils that can help answer this question.”

Of course, Ms Pentland could have other reasons for doing work like this.

“I really like doing field work and getting to do dinosaur digs in the Victorian summer when you can swim in the ocean is quite beautiful.”

Sia

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