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Science & Environment

Brigham Young University Geologists Discover Oldest Known Pterosaur Fossil

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Usually when scientists find fossils of ancient creatures, they're not in great shape.

BROOKS BRITT: They all look like roadkill.

CORNISH: Not always, though. Brooks Britt was part of a team that found something remarkable in northeast Utah - remains of a nearly intact skull dating back nearly 200 million years.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, if you look at a drawing of this creature, any 5-year-old could probably tell you it's a pterodactyl. For what it's worth, scientists say pterosaur. And we're going to let Britt tell you the name of this one.

BRITT: It's Caelestiventus hanseni.

KELLY: The Brigham Young University geologist says it means heavenly wind. Yesterday, the result of four years of studying it were published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

CORNISH: Now, it was not a dinosaur, and it was not a precursor to a bird either, although it did fly.

BRITT: Birds in fact are dinosaurs. They evolved from dinosaurs. But this was an evolutionary dead end. They were the first powered flying vertebrates. They ruled the skies throughout the Mesozoic. But they went extinct at the end, leaving no descendants.

KELLY: And this one was 65 million years older than any discovered anywhere before.

BRITT: People say, well, I'm going to go out and find a pterosaur. I'm going to look for pterosaurs this summer. And you just laugh because that's like someone in the convenience store saying, you know, I'm going to go out, and I'm going to win the lottery today. It's just not going to happen.

KELLY: The specimen that the BYU team found was in a large block of sandstone, which is what helped preserve it so well.

BRITT: The point is we can see fine, delicate processes. We can see where blood vessels or nerves entered or exited the bones. We can see where air sacs from the nasal sinuses entered into the side of the face or the lower jaw, for example.

CORNISH: It was a young pterosaur but still big.

BRITT: The wingspan of this animal is conservatively 1.5 meters, so it's about 5 feet.

CORNISH: Its teeth look like blades, big ones on top and 38 little ones on the bottom.

BRITT: It's just a bizarre combination of teeth. This guy was well-adapted for procuring the prey and for slicing it up. If you were designing a flying creature for some science fiction movie, I think this is the animal you'd create.

KELLY: Brooks Britt remains overjoyed at how his line of work offers so many surprises when they chip away the sand and look inside.

BRITT: It's like Christmas every day. You never know what present is sitting there for you.

KELLY: Britt believes that this discovery will mean all those little scraps of bone that scientists have collected over the years will now be open to new interpretation. Now that they've seen how everything really fits together in a pterodactyl - I mean pterosaur - they don't have to make educated guesses anymore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.