Before the discovery of this pterosaur, the oldest desert-dwelling pterosaur was from rocks of Cretaceous age, about 130 million years old. That explains how they survived a mass extinction about 200 million years ago, which destroyed half of all terrestrial species.
Caelestiventus hanseni hovered over Utah 201-210 million years ago when the climate in North America was much hotter and drier current.
Scientists working with Brigham Young University (BYU) discovered a new and rare pterodactyl while working in northeastern Utah. Also known as pterosaurs, these extinct flying creatures were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability to fly. Dating back more than 200 million years, it's one of the earliest ever found.
Before the dinosaurs hit their stride, the Earth may have belonged to a different kind of reptile: the pterosaur.
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Britt discovered the bones as he was searching through new sandstone samples. After already tallying almost 20,000 fossils from this one spot, they've only discovered one of the flying reptiles, and it just so happened to be the find of a lifetime. Because pterosaur bones are thin and fragile, most bones are crushed when they're found.
"For this animal, we have the sides of the face and the complete roof of the skull, including the brain case, complete lower jaws and part of the wing", he said.
Despite the special bone flange under its jaw (seen in the reconstructed skull, above), Caelestiventus probably didn't eat fish, as pelicans do; the desert oasis where it died apparently hosted only reptiles.
"Most pterosaurs bones look like road-kill", Britt told AFP, noting that there are only 30-odd specimens worldwide from the Triassic period which lasted some 51 million years. The new fossil provides evidence that pterodactyls were widely distributed across the planet. Most other specimens have been discovered in the Alps.
All of the specimen's remains are still encased in sandstone but thanks to modern CAT-scan technology, scientists were able to generate breathtaking 3-D images and models of each of the pterosaur's bones.
"We're getting insights into the beginning of pterosaurs".
Another view of the 3-D printed skull.