Fossil of “flying dragon” found preserved in a rock

This is a pterosaur from the family Rhamphorhynchinae, which, on average, were smaller than pterodactyloids. It is the first of its kind to be discovered in the Southern Hemisphere.

Scientists have identified the fossilized remains of a so-called "flying dragon" in the Atacama Desert in Chile. The winged lizard unearthed in the sand is the first case of a pterosaur specimen discovered in the Southern Hemisphere. This species flew through the sky about 160 million years ago with a wingspan of about two meters, a long, pointed tail and teeth protruding outward, features that gave the Jurassic-era creature the nickname "dragon." Although the exact genus and species of the fossil found in Chile remain unknown, scientists believe it belonged to the Rhamphorrhynchinae, a subfamily of rhamphorhynchoids, which were one of the two main types of pterosaurs along with the pterodactyloids.

Flying dragon fossil found in Chile

The discovery in the Atacama Desert represents the first evidence of the presence of a member of the subfamily Rhamphorhynchinae below the equator. Compared to pterodactyloids, Rhamphorhynchinae were smaller on average, sported longer tails and, instead of beaks, possessed fully toothed jaws, which they likely used to catch fish and small marine mammals from the sea. "This discovery was very exciting," said the scientist who led the investigation Jhonatan Alarcón, of the University of Chile. "We are the first paleontologists to reveal the presence of the subfamily Rhamphorhynchinae in the southern hemisphere. Before this discovery - he addedyo - it was thought that these pterosaurs had not existed at these latitudes."

To discover the fossil was actually Osvaldo Rojas, director of the Natural History Museum of the Atacama Desert. In 2009, Rojas cracked a rock that had intrigued him and found the fossilized bones of the ancient reptile preserved inside. An analysis by Alarcón revealed that the ancient remains belonged to an unknown species in the subfamily Rhamphorhynchinae. Now efforts are underway to understand how the reptile remains ended up so far south on the sands of the driest place on Earth. Alarcón believes it can't be said that "this pterosaur is a migratory species," but the discovery suggests that at least one member of Rhamphorhynchinae moved from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere.

In the meantime, in New Zealand, a group of 10- to 18-year-olds from the Hamilton Junior Naturalistic Club has discovered a new species of Oligocene giant penguin, never before studied.

Stefania Bernardini