Discovery shows community of flying reptiles inhabited the Sahara 100 million years ago

Aerial predator: the toothed pterosaur Anhanguera soars over an ancient river system. Fossils of several different flying reptiles have been described from Morocco's Kem Kem beds. (Artwork by Megan Jacobs)

University of Detroit Mercy’s Nizar Ibrahim was part of an international team of scientists, led by Baylor University’s Megan Jacobs and including researchers from England and Morocco, that identified three new species of toothed pterosaurs.

The pterosaurs were part of an ancient river ecosystem in Africa that was full of life, including fish, crocs, turtles and several predatory dinosaurs.

The new fossils, published in the journal Cretaceous Research, are helping to uncover the very poorly known evolutionary history of Africa during the time of the dinosaurs. The new finds show that African pterosaurs were quite similar to those found on other continents. These flying predators soared above a world dominated by predators, including crocodile-like hunters and carnivorous dinosaurs. Interestingly, herbivores such as sauropods and ornithischian dinosaurs are rare. Many of the predators, including the toothed pterosaurs, preyed on a superabundance of fish.

“These new finds provide an important window into the world of African pterosaurs,” said Ibrahim, assistant professor of Biology at Detroit Mercy. “We know so much more about pterosaurs from places like Europe and Asia, so describing new specimens from Africa is always very exciting.”

The new pterosaurs identified by the researchers from chunks of jaws and teeth, found in the middle Cretaceous Kem Kem beds of Morocco, had wingspans of around 3 to 4 meters. These aerial fishers snatched up their prey while on the wing, using a murderous looking set of large spike-like teeth that formed a highly effective tooth grab. Large pterosaurs such as these would have been able to forage over vast distances, similar to present day birds such as condors and albatrosses.

One of the species, Anhanguera, was previously only known from Brazil. Another, Ornithocheirus, had until now only been found in England and Middle Asia.