New species of flying reptile identified on B.C. coast

(Edmonton) Persistence has paid off for a University of Alberta paleontology researcher who, after months of pondering the origins of a fossilized jaw bone, finally identified it as a new species of pterosaur, a flying reptile that lived 70 million years ago.

Victoria Arbour says she was stumped when the small piece of jaw bone was first pulled from a fossil storage cabinet in the U of A's paleontology department.

"It could have been from a dinosaur, a fish or a marine reptile," she said.

Arbour, a PhD student in paleontology, says the first clue to the fossil's identity came after she compared it with known species of pterosaurs. "I found a previously published paper describing the teeth of a previously discovered pterosaur and ours was very close," said Arbour.

"The teeth of our fossil were small and set close together," she said. "They reminded me of piranha teeth, designed for pecking away at meat."

That led Arbour to believe her new species, named Gwawinapterus beardi, was a scavenger of the late Cretaceous period. "It had a wingspan of about three metres and patrolled the sky and set down to feed on the leftover kills made by predator dinosaurs of the time such as Albertosaurus."

The fossil is not only a new species; it's also the first pterosaur of any kind to be found in British Columbia. It was found on Hornby Island, off the coast of Vancouver Island. Arbour says that 70 million years ago, when that pterosaur existed, Hornby Island was nowhere near its present location.

"In the late Cretaceous period, the B.C. coastal islands were about 2,500 kilometres to the south and part of what is now mainland California," said Arbour.

Arbour's research was published online earlier this month in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.

If you would like to make a tax deductible gift in support of the U of A's paleontology department, please click here.