The 70-million-year-old remains of an enormous flying predator that feasted on baby dinosaurs have been discovered in Mongolia.
The flesh-eating reptile, which was the size of a small plane with a wingspan stretching 11 metres (36ft), was likely one of the largest animals ever to fly.
It could have walked on all fours using its wings as front limbs to stalk prey on the ground, researchers said, and would have stood as tall as a giraffe.
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The bones of a pterosaur that feasted on dinosaurs have been discovered in Mongolia. The reptile, which was the size of a small plane with a wingspan of 11 metres (36ft), was one of the largest animals ever to fly. Pictured is the similarly-sized pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus
THE NEW SPECIES
– The new species was a type of ancient flying reptile called a pterosaur
– It was the size of a small plane with a wingspan reaching 11 metres (36ft)
– It could have walked on all fours using its wings as front limbs and would have stood as tall as a giraffe
– From the ground the species stalked prey including small and juvenille dinosaurs
– It lived 70 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period
– The remains were found in a region of Mongolia's Gobi desert known as the Nemegt Formation
Because of its size, the new carnivore is thought to have eaten juvenile or small dinosaurs, which were common during the Late Cretaceous period when the animal lived.
The fossil was found in a region of Mongolia's Gobi desert known as the Nemegt Formation, an area where many dinosaur bones have been found before.
It is thought the beast was a pterosaur, a group of giant flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs.
The animals were the first vertebrates known to evolve the power of flight, and are thought to have been the largest flying animals ever seen on Earth.
While the species unearthed in Mongolia has not yet been identified, researchers were struck by the sheer size of the backbone fragments found.
'I immediately recognised that it might be a pterosaur and was astonished at its gigantic size,' palaeontologist Dr Takanobu Tsuihiji from the University of Tokyo told National Geographic.
'Straight away, we went back to the site and discovered the rest of the specimen.'
Based on the eight-inch (20cm) width of the backbone fragments found, the researchers claim the animal would have been similar in size to the two largest known species of pterosaur.
The huge predators Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx probably had wingspans of 10 metres (32ft) and 11 metres (36ft) respectively.
This is the first time the famed Nemegt Formation fossil patch has yielded a pterosaur, showing how far-reaching the group was in the Late Cretaceous period.
Because of its size, the new carnivore is thought to have eaten juvenile or small dinosaurs, which were common in the Late Cretaceous period. The creature was a similar size to the pterosaur Hatzegopteryx (artist's impression)
'Although fragmentary, the specimen is from a gigantic individual… extending the geographic range of gigantic pterosaurs to Asia,' the researchers wrote in their paper.
Palaeontologists with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences first discovered the bones in 2006.
They sent the fossil to the University of Tokyo for further analysis before a re-examination of the site uncovered more remains.
But many of the bones were broken into tiny fragments, meaning it took researchers years to piece them back together.
The new species could have 'walked on all fours' using its wings as front limbs to stalk prey on the ground, researchers said, and may have stood as tall as a giraffe. Pictured is an artist's impression of a similar pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus
Once they had pieced the fragments back together, the team were left with several backbones from a rare group of pterosaurs known as azhdarchids.
'Whether that equates to a totally new size class of pterosaur is another question,' palaeontologist and pterosaur expert Dr Mark Witton from the University of Portsmouth, who wasn't involved in the study, told National Geographic.
'What we don't have for these pterosaurs is the association of the neck bones with the body to confirm whether they just have much bigger necks, or whether they are much bigger animals.'
Despite this lack of evidence, Dr Witton said the animals likely had a large enough wingspan to push the physical limit for flying in an animal of this size.
The fossil was found in a region of Mongolia's Gobi desert known as the Nemegt Formation, an area where many dinosaur bones have been found before