When paleontology Student Douglas Lawson set out to explore Texas' Big Bend National Park three years ago, he was confident that his fossil hunt would be productive. After all, remnants of creatures ranging from the ferocious dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex to the first true bird, Archaeopteryx, had already been unearthed in the fossil-rich wasteland. What Lawson found exceeded his wildest hopes: fragments of huge wing bones imbedded in a sandstone outcropping in a remote part of the park. Now, after comparing the bones with the remains of similar creatures found elsewhere, Lawson has announced that they belong to a giant extinct flying reptile, or pterosaur (literally, winged lizard), with a wing span estimated to have been 51 ft. That would make it the largest known flying creature ever to inhabit the earth.
Pterosaurs--or pterodactyls, as they are often called--lived at the height of the age of dinosaurs. Equipped with batlike, leathery wings, long, powerful necks and pelican-like jaws, they soared across the skies for millions of years until their mysterious extinction about 60 million years ago. Although many different types of pterosaurs have been found in North America, Lawson's monster is apparently a new species; its wing spread is twice as large as that of any previously discovered flying reptile.*
Now a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, Lawson has since found the remains of two more pterosaurs. The fossils may help settle old scientific questions about pterosaurs. Many of these great flying reptiles lived near the shore, leading paleontologists to conclude that they fed on fish. But Lawson's fossils were found in nonmarine sediments far from any seas. In fact, Lawson writes in Science, the pterosaurs may well have been carrion eaters, using their long necks to probe the carcasses of dead dinosaurs.
The bones may also tell something about how pterosaurs flew. Experts have long doubted that the great creatures could flap their wings hard enough to get off the ground. They speculated that the flying reptiles climbed cliffs or mountains and soared off them like gliders. Presumably, Lawson's considerably larger pterosaurs would have found it even harder to get airborne. Yet their remains were found in an area that is --and probably was, during the age of dinosaurs--at least 20 or 30 miles from any mountains. Unless the bones were washed downstream from their original resting place, their locale could mean that the monstrous reptiles were better flyers than anyone had suspected.
* In contrast, the present-day bird with the largest wing span is the wandering albatross, which measures about 11 ft. from wing tip to wing tip.
"Lawson's Monster.(Science)." Time 24 Mar. 1975: 56. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Dec. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A193896044
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