‘Cool discovery’ reveals flying reptile that dwarfed most things in the sky

10 Sep 2019

Illustration of what the Cryodrakon boreas may have looked like. Image: David Maas

Researchers have discovered the remains of an ancient, flying reptile that may have been one of the largest airborne creatures ever.

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London have revealed that the remains of a creature dug up 30 years ago is the first discovered example of a truly enormous flying creature.

Writing in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the researchers described the new find as Cryodrakon boreas, from the azhdarchid group of pterosaurs. In other words, a flying reptile. Having lived during the Cretaceous period approximately 77m years ago, this creature may have been among the largest ever flying animals with a wingspan of 10 metres.

Upon its discovery in Canada decades ago, the remains were wrongly assumed to belong to an already known species of pterosaur called Quetzalcoatlus.

Dr David Hone, lead author of the study, said: “This is a cool discovery, we knew this animal was here but now we can show it is different to other azhdarchids and so it gets a name.”

Illustration of a birdseye view of the Cryodrakon boreas in flight coloured red and white.

Illustration of the Cryodrakon boreas in flight coloured red and white. Image: David Maas

Painting a clearer picture

The remains consist of a skeleton that has part of the wings, legs, neck and rib originally assigned to Quetzalcoatlus. However, it’s believed that while the main skeleton come from a young animal with a wingspan of about five metres, one giant neckbone from an older Cryodrakon boreas suggests its adult wingspan to be twice as long.

Like other azhdarchids, these animals were carnivorous and predominantly predated on small animals which would likely include lizards, mammals and even baby dinosaurs.

Hone said: “It is great that we can identify Cryodrakon as being distinct to Quetzalcoatlus as it means we have a better picture of the diversity and evolution of predatory pterosaurs in North America.”

Unlike most pterosaur groups, azhdarchids were thought to stay mostly inland despite their ability to cross oceanic distances in flight. This is because, while they were distributed across the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe, few azhdarchids remain except in fragments.

This, the researchers said, makes Cryodrakon an important animal since it has very well preserved bones and includes multiple individuals of different sizes.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic