New pterosaur species discovered by Australian farmer

An artist's impression of Haliskia peterseni, a new species of pterosaur. - Gabriel Ugueto/Curtin University

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An amateur paleontologist has discovered a new species of pterosaur, a flying reptile that lived alongside dinosaurs around 100 million years ago.

Kevin Petersen, an avocado farmer and curator of the Kronosaurus Korner fossil museum in northwest Queensland, Australia, unearthed a number of fossilized bones in western Queensland in 2021.

These have since been identified as belonging to Haliskia peterseni, a new genus and species of pterosaur, according to a statement from a team at Curtin University in Perth, which led the research, published in the journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday.

“With a wingspan of approximately 4.6m, Haliskia would have been a fearsome predator around 100 million years ago when much of central western Queensland was underwater, covered by a vast inland sea and globally positioned about where Victoria’s southern coastline is today,” study lead author Adele Pentland, a PhD candidate at Curtin’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said in the statement.

The giant creature was the first vertebrate to evolve the ability of flight and lived alongside dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era, which started around 252 million years ago.

“Pterosaurs are winged reptiles that possessed a wing made of a membrane of skin, so in some ways they resemble a bat but they are very different and otherworldly in terms of the shape of their heads,” Pentland told CNN.

Haliskia would have hunted fish and squid-like cephalopods in the inland sea, which was also home to large marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, but it would have needed to come onto land to lay its eggs, Pentland told CNN.

It would have been preyed on by large marine reptiles such as Kronosaurus, whose skull alone would have measured 2.4 meters (7.9 feet) in length, she added.

“Haliskia wouldn’t have stood a chance against such a beast,” said Pentland.

Fewer than 25 sets of pterosaur remains belonging to four species have been found in Australia since the 1980s, while more than 100 sets have been found in Brazil and Argentina.

In finding Haliskia, Petersen found the most complete specimen of any pterosaur discovered in Australia to this day, Pentland said in the statement, praising Petersen for his “careful preparation” of the remains.

Haliskia is 22 per cent complete, making it more than twice as complete as the only other known partial pterosaur skeleton found in Australia,” she said, adding that it includes “complete lower jaws, the tip of the upper jaw, 43 teeth, vertebrae, ribs, bones from both wings and part of a leg.”

It also included “very thin and delicate throat bones, indicating a muscular tongue, which helped during feeding on fish and cephalopods,” she added.

Pentland told CNN that she “was not expecting the specimen to be as complete as it was.”

The fossil will join the collection at Kronosaurus Korner, and Petersen said he was excited by the finding.

“I’m thrilled that my discovery is a new species, as my passion lies in helping shape our modern knowledge of prehistoric species,” he said in the statement.

Next up, Pentland will continue working with regional museums in Australia to describe new fossil material, as well as collaborating with researchers in Brazil, she told CNN.

In May 2023, another study led by Pentland found that pterosaurs flew in Australia’s skies as far back as 107 million years ago.

Palaeontologists came to that conclusion after examining two pieces of prehistoric bone extracted from Dinosaur Cove – a fossil-bearing site in the Australian state of Victoria – more than three decades ago.

The samples turned out to be the oldest remains of pterosaurs ever recovered from the country, according to the study published in science journal History Biology.

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