A period when dinosaurs roamed the earth and pterosaurs flew freely in the skies has long been an accepted fact. A new study, however, adds a fresh twist to it — saying that there existed a smaller form of flying reptiles as well in the Cretaceous era alongside the gigantic peers who had smaller wingspans and were about the size of a house cat.

Studies on new fossils excavated from Western Canada's Hornby Island in British Columbia have reinforced the existence of a miniature form. This contrasts the established belief that there were only huge pterosaurs including the Quetzalcoatlus which were taller than giraffes.

The Cretaceous era, dating back to around 70 million years, has been documented as having ended in a mass extinction of pterosaurs and dinosaurs. The latest study, however, hints at the survival of a smaller form beyond that era.

The fossils were the upper arm and vertebrae of a fully grown pterosaur. It had a wingspan of just 1.5 meters and suggested a size not bigger than a housecat. The wings were small, less than 5 feet, and must have been folded up against the tiny body.

Researchers are confident that the specimen was certainly an adult, not the tiny tot of any big flier.

The new findings have been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. In a statement, lead author Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone called the discovery as exciting and reasoned that it was a unique revelation.

"This new pterosaur is exciting because it suggests that small pterosaurs were present all the way until the end of the Cretaceous, and weren't outcompeted by birds," said Martin-Silverstone.

 "We have this small pterosaur, which is in a time when there aren't meant to be any small pterosaurs," co-author Mark Witton said. He also added that it can be an Azhdarchoid pterosaur.

"These are things with big heads and relatively short wings. They were probably generalist feeders that spent much of their time walking around on the ground, basically eating whatever they could," added Witton.

But some researchers are far from convinced by the new study and want more evidence. Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro supports more studies while asserting that he saluted the authors' efforts.

"Pterosaurs are rare. Pterosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, where they found their specimen, are even rarer. And smaller pterosaurs, small individuals, are rarer than that," Kellner told the Christian Science Monitor.

The limitations of the study were also admitted by Witton.

 "We've only got one data point, so don't rewrite the textbooks yet," he said.

Nevertheless, the preliminary findings are still a breakthrough in the crucial research on the evolution and extinction of flying reptiles of the Cretaceous era.

The study of Jurassic era fossil was also reported by Tech Times.

Photo: Garrett Ziegler | Flickr

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