A bizarre spatula-billed pterosaur with a ridiculous amount of teeth has been discovered in a German quarry. Its unique facial anatomy suggests that it shares feeding traits seen in modern-day ducks and whales.
While Pterodaustro from Argentina may have even more teeth, this newly discovered species’ mouth protuberances are curiously long and thin in comparison. The researchers compared these over 480 teeth to the prongs of a nit comb.
“What’s even more remarkable is that some of the teeth have a hook on the end, which we’ve never seen before in a pterosaur,” explains palaeontologist David Martill of the University of Portsmouth.
“These little hooks would have been used to catch the tiny shrimp the pterosaur was probably feeding on – making sure they went down its throat and didn’t get pinched between its teeth.”
So instead of being chompers and tearers, these teeth were used more as traps. This suggests that the metre-long wingspan pterosaur must have been a filter feeder like baleen whales are today.
“There are no teeth at the end of the mouth, but there are teeth all the way along both jaws all the way to the back of the smile,” says Martill.
The open spatulate part of the beak probably scooped water into its bent length. The pterosaur either passively filtered or squeezed out between its teeth, capturing any planktonic animals such as small shrimp that swam around in there. This suggests that they hunted on the ground, wading on long legs like a flamingo.
“Filter feeding among pterosaurs probably evolved from animals that collected food from the water surface or just below without using a piercing bite,” the team wrote in their paper.
“The lengthening of the rosette teeth and the reduction of the interdental space as well as the lengthening of the jaws enhanced this filter effect.”
Paleontologists marveled at the nearly complete skeleton, remarkably preserved in fine layers of limestone for more than 150 million years. Pterosaurs are relatively rare in the fossil record due to the fragility of their thin-walled hollow bones, but this specimen even included small patches of wing membrane.
“It must have been buried in sediment almost as soon as it had died,” explains Martill.
The team identified the pterosaur as belonging to the family Ctenochasmatidae, which lived during the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous.
Martill and colleagues named the ancient animal Balaenognathus maeuseri – the species name in honor of one of the researchers on the team, Matthias Mäuser, who unfortunately passed away recently.
This research was published in Palaeontologische Zeitschrift.