An article published in the journal “Scientific Reports” describes the identification of a new species of pterosaur that was named Mimodactylus libanensis that lived about 95 million years ago, in the Late Cretaceous period, in today’s Lebanon. A team of researchers studied a nearly complete specimen from the Hjoûla site concluding that it had significant differences compared to other pterosaurs that lived in the current Afro-Arab area and had a closer relationship with the species Haopterus gracilis, which lived in today’s China. For this reason the researchers also created a new taxonomic group that includes those genera that was named Istiodactylifomes.
Pterosaurs – order Pterosauria – appeared in the Late Triassic period, almost 230 million years ago. These reptiles were the first flying vertebrates and were very successful because they diversified occupying a number of niches during the Cretaceous period with very variable sizes so that their wingspan could go from 50 centimeters to more than 10 meters.
The availability of pterosaur fossils is very variable. The Afro-Arab area is one in which paleontologists found the greatest scarcity with the discovery of a few fragmentary and incomplete fossils. For this reason, the discovery of an almost complete skeleton in today’s Lebanon is big news. The Hjoûla site has been famous for a very long time for the discovery of fossils in excellent condition of fish and invertebrates while tetrapods are very rare.
The specimen of the species later named Mimodactylus libanensis lived on the Tethys Sea, which in the Cretaceous divided Africa from Eurasia. The fossil examination indicates that it was small compared to many other species of pterosaurs with a wingspan of 1.23 meters but was still growing.
The characteristics of Mimodactylus libanensis show great differences compared from those of the other pterosaur fossils discovered in the Afro-Arab area. The most similar species is Haopterus gracilis, which lived in today’s China. This suggests that the species discovered in today’s Lebanon was part of a radiation, in the sense of species diversification, of pterosaurs that lived in the area around the then Tethys Sea. This led the researchers to create a group that included the genera Mimodactylus and Haopterus they named Istiodactylifomes.
The teeth of Mimodactylus libanensis, conical in shape, short and straight are of the type suitable to break the exoskeletons of arthropods. The characteristics of this pterosaur’s habitat suggest that it fed on crustaceans that were collected thanks to its large beak in a similar way to various species of today’s birds.
Professor Michael Caldwell, a paleontologist from the University of Alberta, commented that the diversity of pterosaurs was much greater than they could have imagined and is likely orders of magnitude greater than can ever be discovered from the fossil record.
A lucky discovery like an almost complete skeleton of a pterosaur in an area where it’s rare to find some gives gives an idea of the diversity mentioned by Professor Michael Caldwell. It offers new information on the history of pterosaurs in the area of the Tethys Sea.