Pterosaurs, the world’s oldest flying reptiles, once flew in Australia’s skies as far back as 107 million years ago, according to a study published Wednesday.
Palaeontologists came to that conclusion after examining two pieces of prehistoric bone extracted from Dinosaur Cove – a fossil-bearing site in the Australian state of Victoria – more than three decades ago.
The samples turned out to be the oldest remains of pterosaurs ever recovered from the country, according to the study published in science journal History Biology on Wednesday.
The giant creature was the first vertebrate to evolve the ability of flight and lived alongside dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era which started 252 million years ago.
Experts from the Perth-based Curtin University and Museums Victoria, in Melbourne, examined bones from two individuals, including a wing bone belonging to the first juvenile pterosaur ever reported in Australia.
A piece of pelvis bone was found to have come from a pterosaur with a wingspan exceeding two meters (6.5 ft). Some pterosaurs had wingspans of more than 10 meters (33 ft).
The Australian specimens were discovered during an excavation at Dinosaur Cove in the 1980s, led by palaeontologists Tom Rich and Pat Vickers-Rich, from Museums Victoria Research Institute.
The lead author of the study published Wednesday, Adele Pentland from Curtin University, told CNN that the discovery showed the massive creatures flew over Australia tens of millions of years ago, despite harsh conditions during the Cretaceous Period (145 million to 66 million years ago), when Victoria was in darkness for weeks on end.
“Australia was further south than it is today,” she said, adding the location where the two specimens were recovered would have been in the polar circle at the time.
Fewer than 25 sets of pterosaur remains belonging to four species have been found in Australia since the 1980s, she said. By comparison, in places like Brazil and Argentina more than 100 sets have been retrieved at individual sites, she added.
Pentland, a PhD student, attributed the three decades it took to confirm the present specimens to the lack of enthusiasm about the species in the country, until she got hold of them and “finally gave them the moment in the sun.”
In a statement, Rich, from Museums Victoria Research Institute, said it was “wonderful” to see the excavation work done at Dinosaur Cove in the 1980s pay off.
At the time, volunteers spent years digging a 60-meter tunnel in a seaside cliff where the bones were found.
“These two fossils were the outcome of a labor-intensive effort by more than 100 volunteers over a decade,” he added.