A new study, published in the journal Cretaceous Research, has revealed that an international team of scientists led by Baylor University has identified three new species of toothed pterosaurs -- flying reptiles of the Cretaceous period, some 100 million years ago -- in Africa.
The scientists said that the pterosaurs, which soared above a world dominated by predators, formed part of an ancient river ecosystem in Africa that teemed with life including fish, crocodiles, turtles and several predatory dinosaurs.
Into the world of pterosaurs in Cretaceous Africa
Megan L. Jacobs, a doctoral candidate in geosciences at Baylor University and the lead author of the study, said: "Pterosaur remains are very rare, with most known from Europe, South America and Asia. These new finds are very exciting and provide a window into the world of pterosaurs in Cretaceous Africa."
The researchers said that the study findings will help them to discover the lesser known evolutionary history of Africa during the time of the dinosaurs. According to the study, African pterosaurs were quite similar to those found on other continents and their world included crocodile-like hunters and carnivorous dinosaurs, with few herbivores. Many predators, including the toothed pterosaurs, preyed on a superabundance of fish.
Jacobs said: "For such large animals, they would have weighed very little. Their wingspans were around 10 to 13 feet, with their bones almost paper-thin and full of air, very similar to birds. This allowed these awesome creatures to reach incredible sizes and still be able to take off and soar the skies."
Fossil from the Kem Kem beds
The researchers said that the pterosaurs used a set of large spike-like teeth to grab their prey and snatched up while on the wing. With the fossil evidence indicating that the large pterosaurs flew between South America and Africa, the researchers believe that they would have been able to forage over hundreds of miles, similar to present-day birds such as condors and albatrosses.
The scientists identified the specimens from chunks of jaws with teeth, which were obtained from fossil miners in a small village called Beggaa, just outside Erfoud in southeast Morocco. The villagers climb halfway up the side of a large escarpment, known as the Kem Kem beds, daily to a layer of a coarse sand, the most fossiliferous bed.
Jacobs said: "They excavate everything they find, from teeth to bones to almost complete skeletons. They then sell their finds to dealers and scientists who conduct fieldwork, ensuring the villagers make enough money to survive while we get new fossils to describe. These pterosaur fragments are unique and can be identified easily -- if you know what to look for."
The researchers said that one of the species, Anhanguera, previously was only known to be from Brazil, while another called Ornithocheirus, had until now only been found in England and Middle Asia.
Jacobs said that the latest discovery brings the total number of toothed pterosaurs, whose remains have been found in the Kem Kem beds, to five. The first one was described in the 1990s, while the second one was mentioned last year. The specimens will be part of an acquisition in a museum in Morocco.