A new species of pterosaur was discovered recently that seems to share some qualities with the modern pelican, notably a pouched beak used to swoop down into lakes and catch prey. If the pterosaur's species and genus name, Ikrandraco avatar, sounds familiar to you, that's because the creature was named after James Cameron's "Avatar" movie. The discoverers of the pterosaur thought the new pterosaur looked remarkably like the flying "Ikran" species in the movie, so they decided to name the dinosaur in homage of Cameron's imaginative work.
The Ikrandraco avatar has markings that bear quite a resemblance to the markings on the ikran species in the movie Avatar. It is common for pterosaurs to have markings on their skull, as one of the study's authors, Alexander Kellner, said, but no one has ever found a pterosaur with markings like the new dinosaur: it has a crest on its lower jaw, but it does not have a crest on its head.
The study reporting the pterosaur's discovery was published yesterday on September 11 in the journal Scientific Reports.
A pterosaur is a species of ancient lizard, not a type of dinosaur. Although this new species of pterosaur shares some traits with the pelican, it was most likely not an ancestor: pelicans descend from dinosaurs, like other birds. The study's lead author, Xiaolin Wang, suggested that the pelican and the Ikrandraco likely developed the pouches and method of catching prey by swooping into water separately. This process is known as "convergent evolution."
The Ikrandraco was about 30 inches long, with a skull about 11 inches long, including the beak. The pterosaur's beak had 40 pairs of teeth, each about half an inch long. The Ikrandraco had a distinctive, 5-inch long crest on its lower jaw, larger than any other flying reptile yet discovered.
The researchers found two mostly complete pterosaur fossils in China.
The team outlined the method which the new pterosaur likely hunted for food, skimming water bodies and opening its large beak to capture tiny prey.
"It is hard to say if all pterosaurs are good fliers, but this new pterosaur must be a good flier," said Wang.
However, some scientists are skeptical that the pterosaur was able to sustain itself from skimming alone. One cited a 2007 study from Plos Biology that concluded pterosaurs probably could not live from skimming alone. Kellner conceded that it was unlikely the new pterosaur ate only skimmed food, and suggested that the species might be a "limited" skimmer.