Pterosaurs have always been considered to be land-dwelling creatures known as “flying dinosaurs” who lived and thrived near small bodies of water. New research suggests that there could also be a new kind of the pterosaur who thrived in the desert instead.

Excavations in the Caiuna desert near Cruzeiro de Oeste show the presence of 47 individual pterosaurs who lacked teeth, had different wingspans, and weighed different sizes. Researchers examined bones and anatomy, and then used these factors to reach the conclusion that they were looking at a different brand of pterosaur than they had ever seen. These pterosaurs had head crests, like other pterosaurs, but they also had jaw divets and bony ridges above the eye that made them appear as a different kind of pterosaur.

One interesting feature about this bone group is that these bones were found together in a 5-foot bedrock layer – pointing to their community within groups. “This certainly indicates that at least some of these animals were gregarious. The lake that Caiuajara lived next to must have been swarming with pterosaurs,” said University of Portsmouth UK paleontologist Mark Witton. The bones show a mixture of both young and adult pterosaurs, and implies that pterosaurs, unlike birds, did not require a lot of supervision and started flying as early as they hatched.

Others seem skeptical of their lying together, saying that desert storms and erosion contributed to the current bedrock fossil layer. At the same time, however, it seems as if a lot of desert storms would have to occur (and a lot deliberate action, at that) to produce a bedrock layer containing 47 individual pterosaurs. If it were a group of 5, that may be understandable; but 47 individual pterosaurs? The number found in one group is too mind-boggling to infer that these desert pterosaurs ended up together because of desert storms, wind, and other natural phenomena. With a small flock of desert pterosaurs, it is likely that these pterosaurs died around the same time (though at different moments and days, perhaps), perhaps due to a desert storm or starvation.

This desert pterosaur discovery completes an inquiry that stretches as far back as 43 years ago, back to 1971 when Alexander Dobruskii and his son, Joao, found the fossils while digging a ditch. They sent samples off in 1975, but they sat untouched until 2011 – for nearly 40 years. Three years ago, Universidade do Contestado geologist Carlos Luiz Weinschutz teamed up with fellow paleontologist Paulo Cesar Manzig to research Brazilian fossils – and stumbled upon the desert pterosaur find. They traveled to Cruzeiro de Oeste to see the fossils for themselves. Upon finding the place where the desert “flying dinosaurs” were located, the team was elated. “When we arrived at the discovery site, the bones were visible – many pterosaur bones right in front of my eyes. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” said Manzig.

Pterosaurs have been deemed “flying dinosaurs” because they are cousins of the land-roaming dinosaurs. The new pterosaur species found at Cruzeiro de Oeste has been named Caiuajara dobruskii, after the local native who first discovered the fossils.