Ancient Massive 'Dragon of Death' Flying Reptile Dug Up in Argentina

Ancient Massive 'Dragon of Death' Flying Reptile Dug Up in Argentina
Ancient Massive 'Dragon of Death' Flying Reptile Dug Up in Argentina. Life reconstruction of Thanatosdrakon amaru. Image credit: Universidad Nacional de Cuyo.
Bones and fossils belonging to the newly identified pterosaur had been buried in rocks for 86 million years. Photo: REUTERS

The Dragon of Death, as scientists have dubbed the new species, hunted prey from Earth's skies around 86 million years ago.

Argentine scientists discovered a new species of a huge flying reptile dubbed "The Dragon of Death" that lived 86 millions of years ago alongside dinosaurs, in a find shedding fresh insight on a predator whose body was as long as a yellow school bus.

The new specimen of ancient flying reptile, or pterosaur, measured around 30 feet (9 meters) long and researchers say it predated birds as among the first creatures on Earth to use wings to hunt its prey from prehistoric skies.

Scientists in Argentina discovered a new species of flying reptiles as long as a school bus known as "The Dragon of Death."

A reconstruction of the pterosaur – and accompanying images on social media – displayed in Mendoza, Argentina, recently drew attention to the study. The pterosaur, also known as Thanatosdrakon amaru, is believed to have predated birds as the first creatures with wings to hunt their prey. "The Dragon of Death" is a combination of Greek words for death (Thanatos) and dragon (drakon).

"The remains of Thanatosdrakon present different particularities that allow us to differentiate them from other known pterosaurs," project leader Leonardo Ortiz told USA TODAY. "Fundamentally, these characteristics are found in the vertebrae and limbs. This allowed us to establish a new species of pterosaur."

A team of paleontologists found the fossils in the Andes mountains of Argentina's western Mendoza province, noting that the rocks preserved the reptile's remains dating back 86 million years to the Cretaceous period, according to the study. That's 20 million years before an asteroid impact wiped out three quarters of life on Earth.

The team also classified the pterosaur fossil as the biggest discovered in South America and one of the largest in the world.

Though scientists have put pterosaurs in the same category as birds because of their ability to fly, they're difficult to classify because they were cold-blooded predators. They had no rivals in the sky, so pterosaurs are believed to have ruled over all of the continents and evolved into various shapes and sizes.

Ortiz David said that the team's discovery of fossils in such good condition was surprising, because pterosaur bones are fragile, and fossils are usually found in tiny pieces.

"From the beginning, two facts caught our attention: The first was the size of the remains and their preservation in three dimensions, an unusual condition in this group of vertebrates; the second was the amount of remains found at the site, since large-giant pterosaurs are only known from fragmentary remains (with some exceptions)," he said. 

"The description of new specimens is always important for vertebrate paleontology, as they shed light on the different groups being studied. In this particular case, 3D elements of large pterosaurs are scarce, making Thanatosdrakon an excellent case study."

The fossils are currently housed in the Laboratory and Museum of Dinosaurs  at the National University of Cuyo in Mendoza. To help preserve the specimens, museum experts made casts of the different fossils on a 1-to-1 scale; the casts are on display at the museum.

The study was published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

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