On the 13th of August 2018 a new palaeontological discovery was announced in the Journal of Nature Ecology & Evolution. This discovery was of a new species of pterosaur called Caelestiventus hanseni its name meaning “heavenly wind”, it lived during the Triassic 210 million years ago, predating known pterosaur relatives by 65 million years. This article will discuss this incredible fossil discovery. Examining where it was found, the analysis that took place and what this fossil means for understanding pterosaur evolution.

Before I get into this article I just wanted to briefly share that I will be commencing palaeontological research from this September onwards till August next year which is really exciting. I will be trying to keep Jurassic Finds as active as I can during this time but their may be times where the blog may see less posts, due to my commitments of my research. However this exciting research is a key stepping stone for my future in Vertebrate palaeontology and I am very looking forward to starting it.

This past month has seen some important paleontological research take place. In May 2018 research was published in the Journal of Nature Communications with the story being publicized on the 26th of August, about scientists at the University of Kent uncovering the genetic variation of dinosaurs from examining the lineage of their closest living relatives of today, birds and turtles. On the 13th of August research was published in the Journal of Nature Ecology & Evolution about the discovery of Caelestiventus hanseni a new Triassic pterosaur closely related to Dimorphodon macronyx from the Early Jurassic of Great Britain. After doing some reading and research I figured I would focus on the fascinating discovery of Caelestiventus hanseni for this article and what this fossil means for understanding pterosaur evolution.

Pterosaur info image
Fact file on Caelestiventus hanseni a new pterosaur found in the US state of Utah. Image credit: Journal of Nature Ecology and Evolution, 2018 via Phys.org.

When the story broke about this fossil discovery many news and science websites picked it up these included the BBC NEWS, Science News, Science Magazine, USA Today and Discover among many other websites.

Where was the fossil found?

The fossil of Caelestiventus was found at the Saints and Sinners quarry in north-eastern Utah, USA by palaeontologists. This discovery is remarkable for a number of reasons the first being that out of more than 18,000 bones discovered at the site the fossil of  Caelestiventus consisted mostly of cranial material and it was the only pterosaur found at the quarry site (Tarlach, 2018). The pterosaur had not yet reached adult hood and it would have had a wing span of 1.5 meters in length. It also did not eat fish but fed on small reptiles that lived at the time.

The second remarkable detail about this fossil is that normally pterosaur fossils found are quite fragmentary, but this pterosaur died in softer sediment which had hardened and had kept the fossil specimen intact. Palaeontologists at the site discovered part of the “pterosaur’s face, the complete roof of the skull, the complete lower jaw and part of a wing” (Daley, 2018, p1). This pterosaur is a truly extraordinary discovery, as it is the only known desert dwelling pterosaur on record, pre-dating known desert pterosaurs by 65 million years (Anderson, 2018).

Skull profile
Skull fragments of Caelestiventus sketched in (b), appears closely related to another species of the flying archosaur from England (c). Image credit: Britt et al 2018, via Discover.

Imagine for a moment discovering a fossil like this and doing the research, it must be a truly amazing experience to find out that a new pterosaur specimen has been found that predates everything we thought we knew about the evolution of desert dwelling pterosaurs. My past articles here on Jurassic Finds have focused on some wonderful fossil discoveries and these types of specimens like Caelestiventus never ceases to amaze me. One of the reasons I always wanted to pursue a career in palaeontology was because it is a field of study that is always changing. It is also a field of study where once a question is answered another question always comes up and this has always fascinated me.

What was the fossil analysis that took place?

Due to the fossilized bones being delicate the palaeontologists used a CT scanner to build a digital 3D Model of the skull and used this to print a remarkable 3D model version. This model would show the “complex set of teeth, including the sharp fangs protruding from the front of the mouth, and blade-like teeth along the lower jaw” (Halton, 2018, p1). The jaws of which would have used to kill small reptiles and small vertebrates living within the desert oasis it occupied at the time 210 million years ago.

3D Model image of the Skull
A 3D-printed model of the Caelestiventus hanseni skull. Image credit: Nate Edwards / Brigham Young University, 2018 via Science News.

What does this discovery mean for understanding pterosaur evolution?

The fossil discovery of Caelestiventus can be considered just the tip of the iceberg in trying to understand the diversity of pterosaur evolution. Whilst we can expect more analysis of the Caelestiventus fossil specimen to take place in the future, we can also expect to hear more stories of pterosaur discoveries similar to this. Future discoveries again will continue to change everything we thought we knew about pterosaurs, how they lived, how they travelled, how they raised their young, how successful they were etc. These exciting fossil discoveries of pterosaurs will continue and I cannot wait for what these discoveries hold for the future of palaeontology.

Caelestiventus artist impression
Artist impression of Caelestiventus hanseni. Image credit: Michael Skrepnic/BYU, 2018 via Smithsonian.com.

I hope you have all enjoyed reading this article! I have really enjoyed doing the research for it and putting it together. I look forward to sharing more about the latest palaeontological research with you all soon. Keep an eye on Jurassic Finds over the coming months for my next article!

Tarlach G. (2018) Utah Pterosaur Was Desert-Dwelling Badass…Pelican?, [online] Discover Magazine, Available from: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/deadthings/2018/08/13/utah-pterosaur/#.W404VvZFxPZ [Accessed 3rd September 2018]

Daley J. (2018) Rare Desert Pterosaur Fossil Discovered in Utah, [online] Smithsonian.com, Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/rare-desert-pterosaur-fossil-discovered-utah-180969995/ [Accessed 3rd September 2018]

Anderson N. (2018) Caelestiventus hanseni: Newly-Discovered Triassic Pterosaur Lived in Harsh Desert, [online] Science News, Available from: http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/caelestiventus-hanseni-triassic-pterosaur-06304.html [Accessed 3rd September 2018]

Halton M. (2018) Winged reptiles thrived before dinosaurs, [online] BBC NEWS, Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45171201 [Accessed 3rd September 2018]

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