Guest post: Gwawinapterus – a new Canadian pterosaur

Those with an ear to the ground might well have heard already about Gwawinapterus a new istiodacylid pterosaur from Canada. This is quite a find as it represents the first istiodactylid from outside Eurasia and is by far the most recent extending both the geographic and temporal range of the group. Describer Victoria Arbour, (who also writes the rather entertaining Pseudplocephalus blog about her dinosaur travels) takes us through the history of the find and the difficult identification of the jaws.

I’d like to introduce you to British Columbia’s first pterosaur, Gwawinapterus beardi. Folks who know me in real life may wonder exactly why I am publishing a paper on pterosaurs when in fact my MSc and PhD research has focused on the armoured and tail-clubbed ankylosaurid dinosaurs. Good question! To answer it, we must hop in a time machine and travel back to the winter of 2005, while I was still in my undergraduate program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia…

For those of you with some idea of Canadian geography, you may note that Nova Scotia is actually located rather far away from British Columbia. But as it turns out, during the winter of 2005 I was handed a shoebox of fossil bones that had been found in BC during the early 1970s. These bones were found during uranium prospecting in the Sustut Basin, and had been donated to Dalhousie by the collector earlier in 2004. I will forever be grateful to my professors in the Earth Sciences Department, who, knowing my interest in palaeontology and desire to have a go at making a career of it, gave me that little box to work on for my Honours thesis. Those fragmentary but very well-preserved bones turned out to be the first dinosaur bones ever found in British Columbia, and belonged to either a basal ornithopod like Thescelosaurus, or a pachycephalosaur like Stygimoloch. (Of course, work by my friends and colleagues Lisa Buckley and Rich McCrea at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre are uncovering more and better dinosaur specimens from BC every year.) This project ended up published as my very first published scientific paper.

In 2006 I started an MSc at the University of Alberta, and sometime in probably 2007 or early 2008 my supervisor Phil Currie asked me if I would like to work on another unusual British Columbian vertebrate fossil, given my interest in the Sustut dinosaur specimen. The little calcite nodule from Hornby Island (off the coast of Vancouver Island) he handed me was obviously the jaw of something, but we were somewhat stymied as to what that something might be. At the time, we thought it could be perhaps the jaw of another small ornithischian, but the teeth didn’t really fit. Right then I was busy working on the biomechanics of ankylosaur tail-clubbing, but I promised to return to the Hornby jaw once I had finished my thesis.

I started my PhD at the University of Alberta in 2009 and decided to spend more time figuring out exactly what the little jaw represented. Although not very much of the animal was preserved, the teeth were in good condition and could provide a lot of information for figuring out what animal it was. I spent a lot of time skimming papers about everything from fossil fish to mosasaurs to birds – anything that had teeth in the Late Cretaceous. My friend and colleague Derek Larson, who was working on microvertebrates from southern Alberta at the time and thus well-versed in teeth, suggested I try looking at pterosaur papers. And voila! Within a few days, I had come across the paper describing Istiodactylus sinensis, an istiodactylid pterosaur from China. After that, I found papers describing Istiodactylus latidens, Nurhachius, and other istiodactylid pterosaurs. The teeth of these istiodactylids shared a lot of features with the Hornby jaw’s teeth, but there were also some distinct differences that suggested the Hornby animal was unique within the istiodactylids and could be assigned to a new genus and species.

And so Gwawinapterus was born. I like the trajectory of this project, because it shows you how previous papers can lead to new and interesting projects where you least expect them! And a take-home message for undergrads: if somebody hands you an interesting project, take that opportunity and run with it! You never know what might happen 5 years down the road.

Even if it’s yet another somewhat scrappy specimen from British Columbia, I’m quite excited by what it means for Mesozoic vertebrate palaeontology in that province. It’s next-door neighbour Alberta may get a lot of attention (and for good reason), but together with the Sustut dinosaur and the work done by the Tumbler Ridge team, I think British Columbia is ready to shine palaeontologically.

Victoria M. Arbour; Philip J. Currie (2011). “An istiodactylid pterosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Nanaimo Group, Hornby Island, British Columbia, Canada.”. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.

Late edit: Victoria now has a post on her own blog about this too.

6 Responses to “Guest post: Gwawinapterus – a new Canadian pterosaur”

  1. 1 Mike Walley 12/01/2011 at 7:52 pm

    Does this mean that the Early Cretaceous Istiodactylus latidens, the only valid Pterosaur genus I know from the Wealdon Formation had a descendent in what was to become British Columbia? I have read that this new Pterosaur may have been a scavenger, fascinating, as I don’t recall much deviation from the view that those Istiodactylids associated with places like the Isle of Wight and the south coast of England were mainly piscivores.

    • 2 David Hone 12/01/2011 at 8:23 pm

      Well it won’t be a direct descendant, but the two will share a common ancestor. Well scavenging has been suggested for istiodactylids before and I’d be surprised if they didn’t indulge at least occasionally. I know piscovory has been suggested for these but I’m not sure what that’s based on, they don’t have classically fish-feeding jaws like othnithocheirids with the long interdigitating teeth and the long, narrow jaws. I’d be surprised if they were dedicated piscivores.

  2. 3 Cale 13/01/2011 at 4:51 pm

    I live in BC and this post makes me extremely happy.

    BTW, I used to do a bit of native style carving (despite being white as a marshmallow) and your picture for the creature is beautiful. It kinda makes me wanna do my own version in wood……

  3. 4 David Godfrey 29/08/2012 at 8:33 am

    Do Arbour and Currie have any comment to make (other than “wait for the paper”) on the new paper in JVP identifying the pterosaur as a fish?

    Romain Vullo, Eric Buffetaut & Michael J. Everhart (2012)
    Reappraisal of Gwawinapterus beardi from the Late Cretaceous of
    Canada: a saurodontid fish, not a pterosaur.
    Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32 (5): 1198-1201

  1. 1 Finding the fliers – pterosaur discoveries « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 13/05/2011 at 7:55 am
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