New species of flying dinosaur found in Australia

The 100-million-year old fossil is the most complete pterosaur skeleton ever found in the region.
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Haliskia peterseni
Haliskia peterseni Credit: Gabriel Ugueto

Australia is famously well-served for most varieties of terrifying fauna, but at least one variety of prehistoric predator is under-represented in its fossil record: the flying carnivorous dinosaurs known as pterosaurs. However, a new paper published June 12 in Scientific Reports describes a fossilized skeleton found in the Australian state of Queensland that belongs to a previously unknown species of pterosaur. The new species, dubbed Haliskia petersensi, lived 100 million years ago, during the Albian stage of the Cretaceous period, and its discovery suggests pterosaurs may have been more widespread down under than previously thought.

The new discovery is exciting for a number of reasons. It represents a hitherto unknown species, it comes from a continent that has yielded relatively few pterosaur fossils, and it is far more complete than any other previous sample found in Australia. The skeleton includes part of the creature’s skull, its entire mandible, two vertebrae, 12 ribs, two gastralia, along with multiple phalanges, metatarsals, and digits. Study co-author Adele Pentland says, “Haliskia is 22% complete, making it more than twice as complete as the only other known partial pterosaur skeleton found in Australia.” 

The relative completeness of the skeleton allowed researchers to place it into the clade Anhangueria, and to speculate about its feeding habits. Haliskia‘s skeleton dates to a time when much of Queensland was underwater, and the creature appears to have hunted in these waters for its prey. The paper speculates that given the shape of its teeth, it probably fed on “soft-bodied invertebrates (likely cephalopods) and/or other slippery prey items.” Researchers estimate its wingspan at 4.6 meters, or just over 15 feet, and infer from the shape of its skull and jaw that it possessed “a strong, muscular tongue … that aided in the immobilization of live, slippery prey items against the prominent palatal ridge.”

As with the vast majority of the other pterosaur bones that have been found in Australia, Haliskia comes from a region of Australia known as the Toolebuc Formation, a long stretch of Cretaceous rock that extends across Queensland, the Northern Territory, and South Australia. The skeleton was unearthed by Kevin Petersen, the curator of a local museum called Kronosaurus Korner, and has been named in his honor.

During the era in which Haliskia lived, Australia remained part of the supercontinent Gondwana, which also encompassed modern South America, Africa, Antarctica, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian Subcontinent. However, the supercontinent was in the process of separating, slowly splitting apart into the continents we know today. While pterosaur fossils have been found all throughout the continents that once formed Gondwana, there is a marked difference between the parts that formed the eastern part of the supercontinent—Australia, along with New Zealand, Antarctica, Indo-Pakistan, and Madagascar—and those that made up the west. The authors write, “Fossils of pterosaurs are rare in eastern Gondwana, in stark contrast to their relative abundance and diversity in western Gondwana.”

This has made it difficult to reach any conclusions about how widespread pterosaurs might have been in these regions. The paper suggests that Haliskia’s discovery might change this: “The new Australian pterosaur attests to the success of Anhangueria during the latest Early Cretaceous and suggests that the Australian forms were more taxonomically diverse and palaeobiogeographically complex than previously recognized.”