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New research shows these "dragon" prehistoric flyers were dominant in the air.

Toothless pterosaurs were lords of the prehistoric skies

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Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Monday, August 18, 2014, 12:43 PM - Often mistaken for dinosaurs, pterosaurs flocked the skies of the Cretaceous Era as much as dinosaurs dominated the ground.

Now, new research indicates a particular family of toothless pterosaurs, Azhdarchidae - a name derived from the Iranian word for 'dragon' - not only thrived, they were likely the dominant type of pterosaur.

"The shift in dominance from toothed to toothless pterodactyloids apparently reflects some fundamental changes in Cretaceous ecosystems, which we still poorly understand," lead author Alexander Averianov, of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in a release Monday.

Though toothless, these creatures would have been terrifying. Some of the largest members of the family boasted wing spans up to 12 m.

It seems they may even have lasted beyond the asteroid impact that is said to have doomed the dinosaurs. That catastrophe occurred around 65 million years ago, but these Azhdarchidans may have survived until 60 million years ago.

The new research, published in ZooKeys, purports to be a review of the geographic distribution and environment context of Azhdarchids, and it found that while they inhabited a wide variety of environments, they were more common near large lakes and rivers and offshore locales.

Averianov, however, says it's been hard to come up with a clear picture of the animals, as the fossil record is relatively sparse. The study is actually based on 54 fossil deposits, of which three are actually preserved tracks.

"Azdarchidae currently represent a real nightmare for paleontologists," Averianov says.  "Most taxa are known from few fragmentary bones, which often do not overlap between named taxa. The few articulated skeletons are poorly preserved, and some of the best available material has remained undescribed for 40 years."

RELATED: Six terrifying (and thankfully extinct) prehistoric creatures.

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