New pterosaur species with more than 400 teeth unearthed in Germany

The fossil was discovered accidentally in a Bavarian quarry.
Ayesha Gulzar
Artist’s impression of Balaenognathus maeuseri.
Artist’s impression of Balaenognathus maeuseri.

University of Portsmouth 

Researchers have accidentally stumbled upon an unusual specie of pterosaur in Germany. It had over 400 teeth that looked like the prongs of a nit comb. The tightly compact teeth suggest that it ate in a similar way to ducks and flamingos.

The nearly complete skeleton, which has been named Balaenognathus maeuseri, belongs to a family of pterosaurs called Ctenochasmatida. But is very different from other animals in the family.

The most striking feature is its teeth. While some members of the pterosaurs had a number of big, sharp teeth for stabbing prey, others were toothless.

"There is one other pterosaur with more teeth—Pterodaustro from Argentina—but it has stubby teeth in its upper jaw and even longer teeth in its lower jaw," said Professor David Martill, Professor of Palaeobiology and lead author of the study.

The teeth of Balaenognathus maeuseri, however, are fine and equally sized in both the upper and lower jaws, with more teeth in the upper jaw than the lower jaw.

"The jaws of this pterosaur are really long and lined with small fine, hooked teeth, with tiny spaces between them like a nit comb. The long jaw is curved upwards like an avocet, and at the end, it flares out like a spoonbill. There are no teeth at the end of its mouth, but there are teeth all the way along both jaws right to the back of its smile," added Professor Martill.

An extraordinary feeding mechanism

New pterosaur species with more than 400 teeth unearthed in Germany
The bones of Balaenognathus maeuseri found in the slab of limestone.

The teeth suggest an extraordinary feeding mechanism while they waded through the water. It would use its spoon-shaped beak to funnel the water and then its teeth to squeeze out excess liquid, leaving prey trapped in its mouth.

The animal likely dabbled as it waded through shallow lagoons, sucking in tiny water shrimps and copepods and then filtering them out through its teeth just like ducks and flamingos.

"What's even more remarkable is some of the teeth have a hook on the end, which we've never seen before in a pterosaur ever. These small hooks would have been used to catch the tiny shrimp the pterosaur likely fed on – making sure they went down its throat and weren't squeezed between the teeth," said Professor Martill.

The name "Balaenognathus" roughly translates to whale mouth because of its filtering feeding style, while the specific name "maeuseri" is in honor of co-author Matthias Mauser, who died during the writing of the paper.

The fossils of the Balaenognathus maeuseri were accidentally discovered in a Bavarian quarry while scientists were excavating a large block of limestone containing crocodile bones.

Since the first pterosaur was discovered in Bavarian limestone in the 18th century, hundreds of remains of the flying reptiles have been unearthed, making the quarries of the Franconian Jura one of the richest pterosaur localities in the world.

The specimen is currently on display in the Bamberg Natural History Museum in Germany."

The study is published in Palaontologische Zeitschrift.

Study abstract:

A new long-legged, spatula-beaked, filter-feeding pterodactyloid pterosaur from Upper Jurassic plattenkalk limestones at Wattendorf, Bavaria, Southern Germany, is remarkable for its completeness, unusual dentition and hints of the preservation of soft tissues, including wing membranes. The fully articulated specimen displays both jaws each side with over one hundred sub-parallel-sided teeth with a small, slightly hooked expansion at the crown tip. There are at least 480 teeth in total. The tip of the rostrum widens to a spatula-like, laterally concave structure with teeth only along its lateral margins. The straight anterior margin is devoid of teeth allowing plankton-rich water to stream in, while the teeth interdigitate forming a fine mesh trap. A slightly up swept rostrum assisted filtering by probable pulsating movements of the long neck, while wading or swimming through shallow water.

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