‘Frozen dragon of the north wind’ was one of the largest animals to ever fly

CNN  — 

If you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan, the name of this newly discovered giant flying reptile might evoke familiar imagery. Cryodrakon boreas, a previously unknown type of pterosaur, was one of the largest flying animals that ever lived. The name means “frozen dragon of the north wind” and it flew over North America 77 million years ago.

No, it’s not actually a dragon and there’s no evidence to support that it ever breathed blue fire like Viserion in “Game of Thrones.” But this gigantic flying reptile had a wingspan up to 32.8 feet.

The fossils were initially discovered 30 years ago in Dinosaur Provincial Park, located in Alberta, Canada. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains a wealth of dinosaur fossils, where multiple species have been discovered.

But the paleontologists who found them thought they belonged to the pterosaur species Quetzalcoatlus, which was initially discovered in Texas.

An artist's depiction of Cryodrakons.

New research has shown that Cryodrakon is a previously unknown species and it’s the first of its kind to be found in Canada. The fossils include legs, neck, a rib and part of the wings. Cryodrakon belonged to the azhdarchids family of pterosaurs, known for having long necks.

These pterosaurs from the Cretaceous period are often incorrectly called pterodactyls.

A paper describing the new species published this week in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The remains belonged to a younger member of the species, so its wingspan was only about 16.4 feet when it died. But the researchers studied the giant neck bone from an adult to determine that the wingspan of a fully grown Cryodrakon likely reached 32.8 feet.

The Quetzalcoatlus pterosaur had a wingspan of 34 feet, by comparison, and weighed 551 pounds. Researchers liken it to the size of a Cessna airplane, according to a release by the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Canada.

One of Cryodrakon's neck bones.

Cyrodrakon was carnivorous, feasting on a diet of mammals, lizards and baby dinosaurs. And even though they had the wing capacity to fly across oceans, the fossil record shows they stuck close to inland environments.

Although azhdarchids were incredibly large and lived in Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South America, their fossil record is sparse and fragmentary.

“This is a cool discovery, we knew this animal was here but now we can show it is different to other azhdarchids and so it gets a name,” said David Hone, lead author of the study from Queen Mary University of London. “It is great that we can identify Cryodrakon as being distinct to Quetzalcoatlus as it means we have a better picture of the diversity and evolution of predatory pterosaurs in North America.”

Although the reptile was named in honor of the Albertan winter, “which can be stark and beautiful but is very much cold and windy,” Hone said, the environment during the Cretaceous period was much different. Hone said the environment was Mediterranean-esque, supporting birds, lizards, turtles and small mammals.

And they adapted to their inland environment.

“The azhdarchids had long legs and large feet that marked them as being a group that spent much more time on the ground than most other pterosaurs and we have some good tracks for them from Korea that shows they were adept walkers,” Hone said. “Most of their fossils are from inland environments too which fits this pattern.”

In the future, the researchers plan to study how muscles might have attached to the bones to better understand the way Cryodrakon took off, flew and walked.