Meet Vectidraco, a European pterosaur the size of a crow

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Fossil records show that pterosaurs of all sizes and shapes flew through the skies of China and Central Asia about 145 to 66 million years ago. A new species of small pterosaurs described in a PLOS ONE paper reveals that western Europe may have had a similar diversity of these ancient animals. Author Darren Naish discusses the importance of the new species, named Vectidraco.

How did you begin studying dinosaurs (or pterosaurs in particular)?

Most of my research is and has been based on the Lower Cretaceous fossils that come from the Isle of Wight and elsewhere  in southern England. The rocks here are famous for their dinosaurs, but fossil crocodilians, marine reptiles like plesiosaurs and rare pterosaurs are found here too. I’ve always been interested in pterosaurs and for several years have had a special research interest in a highly peculiar pterosaur group called the azhdarchoids – I’ve been working continuously on this group since 2007 or so and have been especially interested in their ecology, functional anatomy and evolutionary relationships. The finding of a new azhdarchoid in the Lower Cretaceous rocks of the Isle of Wight thus combined several of my special interests.

Where and how did you find the new fossil described in your study?

Most Cretaceous Isle of Wight fossils come from a rock unit termed the Wealden Supergroup. The new specimen – we’ve called it Vectidraco - is from a different, younger unit called the Atherfield Clay Formation, and as such it’s (so far as we know) only the second pterosaur reported from this unit.

I should say that the discovery of Vectidraco itself is interesting in that the find was made by a young girl, Daisy Morris (aged just 5 at the time!), while she was on holiday with her family. Daisy’s family wanted this fossil to be studied and cared for properly, so they did what I and many of my colleagues would say is “the right thing” and donated it to The Natural History Museum in London. So, we only know of Vectidraco thanks to Daisy: for this reason we named it in her honour. It’s full name is Vectidraco daisymorrisae.

What was previously known about this group of flying reptiles, the azhdarchoid pterosaurs?

So far as we know right now, azhdarchoids are unique to the Cretaceous period (that is, they were alive between about 145 and 66 million years ago) and all were toothless. They’re actually a pretty diverse group of pterosaurs, with some – like the tapejarids – being relatively small, withwingspans of about 3 feet or slightly less and others – namely the azhdarchids – being gigantic, withwingspans of more than 32 feet.

Tapejarids have short, deep snouts while azhdarchids have incredibly long, pointed jaws, and other kinds of azhdarchoid were intermediate between these two groups. Particularly good azhdarchoid fossils are known from South and North America and China, but their remains have been found right across Europe, Asia and Africa too.

Working out what azhdarchoids did when they were alive has been one of the great questions about the group, but it seems that they were mostly omnivores or carnivores that lived in terrestrial environments.

The paper describes the new fossil as “small-bodied”. How much larger are other known pterosaurs of this kind usually?

Azhdarchoids span a diversity of species that range from ‘small-bodied’ all the way up to gigantic. The biggest kinds –  like the famous Quetzalcoatlus from Texas – were something like 10 feettall at the shoulder and over 450 pounds heavy while small ones, and Vectidraco is one of them, had wingspans of just 30 inches or so and would have been similar in size to crows or gulls. I would say that Vectidraco belonged to an azhdarchoid group where small size was normal and widespread, with large and even giant size evolving in other azhdarchoid lineages.

How did you determine that the new fossil belonged to the same group as these other specimens?

Vectidraco is known only from its pelvis, but even with only a pelvis to go on, we could see several features of the new specimen that made it especially azhdarchoid-like, mostly to do with the weird anatomy of the big, T-shaped bony structure that projects upwards and backwards from the rear part of the pelvis. In an effort to better test the idea that Vectidraco is an azhdarchoid, we included it in a few different phylogenetic analyses and it came out as an azhdarchoid in these too. It also has several unique features, not seen in any other pterosaurs, and for these reasons we were able to name it as a new species.

How does this discovery change what we know about this group of pterosaurs?

We’ve known for a while that small-bodied azhdarchoids lived in western Europe during the Early Cretaceous: a new species called Europejara olcadesorum was described in PLOS ONE last year. Now we’ve found that Vectidraco lived in the same region during the same period, so we’re seeing a pattern: small-bodied azhdarchoids were living alongside longer-snouted, small-bodied pterosaurs and also alongside large, toothy kinds called ornithocheiroids.

This is essentially the same kind of pterosaur community that we  see in Chinese rocks of the same age – the great difference is that the Chinese fossils are relatively numerous, and frequently preserved as complete or near-complete skeletons. In fact, one of the things that we comment on in our paper is the fact that western Europe’s pterosaur assemblage looks far less rich than that of China due to differences in the way these fossils were preserved. Chinese pterosaur and small dinosaur fossils were buried rapidly by volcanic ash and hence preserved whole, while those of western Europe were usually broken apart on floodplains, extensively scavenged, and eventually preserved in fragmentary form.

The western European and Chinese assemblages might actually have contained similar sorts of species, but the conditions local to both places meant that their fossil records ended up being very different.

Read more about this exciting new fossil at Darren Naish’s own blog, Tetrapod Zoology.

Citation: Naish D, Simpson M, Dyke G (2013) A New Small-Bodied Azhdarchoid Pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of England and Its Implications for
Pterosaur Anatomy, Diversity and Phylogeny. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58451. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058451

Vullo R, Marugán-Lobón J, Kellner AWA, Buscalioni AD, Gomez B, et al. (2012) A New Crested Pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Spain: The First European Tapejarid (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchoidea). PLoS ONE 7(7): e38900. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038900

Images: Specimen and speculative reconstruction of Vectidraco from 10.1371/journal.pone.0058451, Life restoration of the head of Europejara from 10.1371/journal.pone.0038900

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