In the icy badlands of Alberta, paleontologists have found a “frozen dragon”: a new genus of pterosaur that once soared over the heads of dinosaurs with a wingspan that stretched at least 16 feet. The flying reptile—named Cryodrakon boreas—lived in what is now western Canada about 76 million years ago, during what’s known as the Cretaceous period.
“The animal, when alive, would not have been a frozen dragon,” notes study coauthor Mike Habib, a paleontologist at the University of Southern California. “It would have flying in a landscape that would have been reasonably temperate … but a hell of a lot warmer than central Alberta is now.”
The pterosaur’s bones have been known to scientists for nearly three decades, but it has only now been confirmed as its own genus, researchers announced on Tuesday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“For me, as a Canadian who also works on pterosaurs, it’s pretty cool to get an actual name for an animal that’s been kicking around for a while,” says paleontologist Liz Martin-Silverstone, a research associate at the University of Bristol who wasn’t involved with the study.
For a long time, paleontologists had instead assumed that the fossils belonged to a pterosaur called Quetzalcoatlus northropi, says study coauthor Dave Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London. Both animals belong to a group known as the azhdarchid (azh-DAHR-kid) pterosaurs, which were notable for being mostly head and neck.
The azhdarchids are also known for reaching immense sizes, none more so than Quetzalcoatlus. When flying over what’s now Texas, the creature’s wingspan stretched more than 30 feet. When it was walking on the ground, as azhdarchids often did, it was more than eight feet tall at the shoulder, roughly the same height as some giraffes.
The discovery of Cryodrakon means North America was home to at least two genera of large azhdarchids, expanding our knowledge of ancient diversity and how the world’s largest flying creatures eked out a living.
The partial skeleton that defines Cryodrakon was dug up from Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park in 1992. But its identity remained unclear for decades because of a paleontological paradox: Quetzalcoatlus might be the best-known and worst-known azhdarchid all at once.
Though Q. northropi was described in 1975, only one of its limb bones got a detailed writeup; the scientists who oversaw the giant’s remains never got around to publishing the rest. For 40 years, paleontologist Wann Langston worked off-and-on to complete the description—but then he died in 2013, leaving the work unfinished. An international team is currently trying to finish the job.
In the meantime, North Am