Article | Published:

Caelestiventus hanseni gen. et sp. nov. extends the desert-dwelling pterosaur record back 65 million years


Pterosaurs are the oldest known powered flying vertebrates. Originating in the Late Triassic, they thrived to the end of the Cretaceous. Triassic pterosaurs are extraordinarily rare and all but one specimen come from marine deposits in the Alps. A new comparatively large (wing span >150 cm) pterosaur, Caelestiventus hanseni gen. et sp. nov., from Upper Triassic desert deposits of western North America preserves delicate structural and pneumatic details not previously known in early pterosaurs, and allows a reinterpretation of crushed Triassic specimens. It shows that the earliest pterosaurs were geographically widely distributed and ecologically diverse, even living in harsh desert environments. It is the only record of desert-dwelling non-pterodactyloid pterosaurs and predates all known desert pterosaurs by more than 65 Myr. A phylogenetic analysis shows it is closely allied with Dimorphodon macronyx from the Early Jurassic of Britain.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Wellnhofer, P. Pterosauria. Handbuch der Paläoherpetologie Vol. 19 (Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, 1978).

  2. 2.

    Kellner, A. W. A. Remarks on pterosaur taphonomy and paleoecology. Acta Geol. Leopold. 17, 175–189 (1994).

  3. 3.

    Dalla Vecchia, F. M. in Anatomy, Phylogeny and Palaeobiology of Early Archosaurs and Their Kin: Triassic Pterosaurs (eds Nesbitt, S. J., Desojo, J. B. & Irmis, R. B.) 119−155 (Geological Society of London, London, 2013).

  4. 4.

    Dalla Vecchia, F. M. Gli Pterosauri Triassici (Museo Friulano di Storia Naturale, Udine, 2014).

  5. 5.

    Andres, B. The earliest pterosaurs. J. Vertebr. Paleontol. 26, 37A (2006).

  6. 6.

    Andres, B. & Myers, T. S. Lone star pterosaurs. Earth Env. Sci. Trans. R. Soc. Edinb. 103, 1–16 (2013).

  7. 7.

    Hahn, G., Lepage, J. C. & Wouters, G. Cynodontier-zähne aus der Ober-Trias von Medernach. Bull. Soc. Belge. Geol. 93, 357–373 (1984).

  8. 8.

    Fröbisch, N. B. & Fröbisch, J. A new basal pterosaur genus from the Upper Triassic of Northern Calcareous Alps of Switzerland. Palaeontology 49, 1081–1090 (2006).

  9. 9.

    Hintze, L. F. & Kowallis, B. J. Geologic History of Utah: A Field Guide to Utah’s Rocks (Brigham Young Univ., Provo, 2009).

  10. 10.

    Sprinkel, D. A., Kowallis, B. J. & Jensen, P. H. in Sevier Thrust Belt—Northern and Central Utah and Adjacent Areas (eds Sprinkel, D. A., Yonkee, W. A. & Chidsey, T. C. Jr) 131–149 (Utah Geological Association, Salt Lake City, 2011).

  11. 11.

    Britt, B. B., Chure, D. J., Engelmann, G. F. & Shumway, J. D. Rise of the Erg: Paleontology and Paleoenvironments of the Triassic–Jurassic Transition in Northeastern Utah (Utah Geological Association, Salt Lake City, 2016).

  12. 12.

    Irmis, R. B., Chure, D. J., Engelmann, G. F., Wiersma, J. P. & Lindström, S. in The Uinta Basin and Uinta Mountains (eds Vanden Berg, M. D., Ressetar, R. & Birgenheier, L. P.) 13–48 (Utah Geological Association, Salt Lake City, 2015).

  13. 13.

    Renesto, S., Spielmann, J. A., Lucas, S. G. & Tarditi Spagnoli, G. The Taxonomy and Paleobiology of the Late Triassic (Carnian–Norian: Adamanian–Apachean) Drepanosaurs (Diapsida: Archosauromorpha: Drepanosauromorpha) (New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Albuquerque, 2010).

  14. 14.

    Cisneros, J. C. Phylogenetic relationships of procolophonid parareptiles with remarks on their geological record. J. Syst. Palaeontol. 6, 345–366 (2008).

  15. 15.

    Padian, K. Osteology and functional morphology of Dimorphodon macronyx (Buckland) (Pterosauria: Rhamphorhynchoidea) based on new material in the Yale Peabody Museum. Postilla 189, 1–43 (1983).

  16. 16.

    Sangster, S. The Anatomy, Functional Morphology and Systematics of Dimorphodon macronyx (Diapsida: Pterosauria). PhD thesis, Univ. Cambridge (2003).

  17. 17.

    O’Sullivan, M. & Martill, D. M. The taxonomy and systematics of Parapsicephalus purdoni (Reptilia: Pterosauria) from the Lower Jurassic Whitby Mudstone Formation, Whitby, U.K. Hist. Biol. 29, 1009–1018 (2017).

  18. 18.

    Codorniú, L., Paulina-Carabajal, A., Pol, D., Unwin, D. & Rauhut, O. W. M. A Jurassic pterosaur from Patagonia and the origin of the pterodactyloid neurocranium. PeerJ 4, e2311 (2016).

  19. 19.

    Hone, D. W. E., Habib, M. B. & Lamanna, M. C. An annotated and illustrated catalogue of Solnhofen (Upper Jurassic, Germany) pterosaur specimens at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Ann. Carne. Mus. 82, 165–191 (2013).

  20. 20.

    Gasparini, Z., Fernández, M. & de la Fuente, M. A new pterosaur from the Jurassic of Cuba. Palaeontology 47, 919–927 (2004).

  21. 21.

    Padian, K. The Early Jurassic pterosaur Dorygnathus banthensis (Theodori, 1830). Spec. Pap. Palaeontol. 80, 1–64 (2008).

  22. 22.

    Padian, K. The Early Jurassic pterosaur Campylognathoides Strand, 1928. Spec. Pap. Palaeontol. 80, 65–107 (2008).

  23. 23.

    Witmer, L. M., Chatterjee, S., Franzosa, J. & Rowe, T. Neuroanatomy of flying reptiles and implications for flight, posture and behaviour. Nature 425, 950–953 (2003).

  24. 24.

    Bennett, S. C. An external mandibular fenestra and other archosauriform characters in basal pterosaurs re-examined. Hist. Biol. 27, 796–814 (2015).

  25. 25.

    Stecher, R. A new Triassic pterosaur from Switzerland (Central Australpine, Grisons), Raeticodactylus filisurensis gen. et sp. nov. Swiss J. Geosci. 101, 185–201 (2008).

  26. 26.

    Bennett, S. C. New interpretation of the wings of the pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus muensteri based on the Zittel and Marsh specimens. J. Paleontol. 89, 845–869 (2016).

  27. 27.

    Swofford, D. L. PAUP. Phylogenetic Analysis Using Parsimony (and Other Methods) (Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, 2002).

  28. 28.

    Dalla Vecchia, F. M. Austriadactylus (Diapsida, Pterosauria) from the Norian (Upper Triassic) of northeastern Italy. Riv. Ital. Paleontol. Stratigr. 115, 291–304 (2009).

  29. 29.

    Clark, J. M., Montellano, M., Hopson, J. A., Hernandez, R. R. & Fastovsky, D. E. in In the Shadow of the Dinosaurs: Early Mesozoic Tetrapods (eds Fraser, N. C. & Sues, H.-D.) 295−302 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1994).

  30. 30.

    Clark, J. M., Hopson, J. A., Hernandez, R. R., Fastovsky, D. E. & Montellano, M. Foot posture in a primitive pterosaur. Nature 391, 886–889 (1998).

  31. 31.

    Unwin, D. M. in Evolution and Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs (eds Buffetaut, E. & Mazin, J.-M.) 139–190 (Geological Society of London, London, 2003).

  32. 32.

    Buckland, W. On the discovery of a new species of pterodactyle in the Lias at Lyme Regis. Trans. Geol. Soc. Lond. 2, 217–222 (1829).

  33. 33.

    Nesbitt, S. J. & Hone, D. W. E. An external mandibular fenestra and other archosauriform character states in basal pterosaurs. Palaeodiversity 3, 225–233 (2010).

  34. 34.

    Unwin, D. M. New remains of the pterosaur Dimorphodon (Pterosauria: Rhamphorhynchoidea) and the terrestrial ability of early pterosaurs. Mod. Geol. 13, 57–68 (1998).

  35. 35.

    Dalla Vecchia, F. M. A wing phalanx of a large basal pterosaur (Diapsida, Pterosauria) from the Norian (Late Triassic) of NE Italy. Boll. Soc. Paleontol. Ital. 39, 229–234 (2000).

  36. 36.

    Frey, E. & Martill, D. M. Soft tissue preservation in a specimen of Pterodactylus kochi (Wagner) from the Upper Jurassic of Germany. Neues Jahrb. Geol. Paläontol. 210, 421–441 (1998).

  37. 37.

    Frey, E., Tischlinger, H., Buchy, M. C. & Martill, D. M. in Evolution and in Palaeobiology of Pterosaurs (eds Buffetaut, E. & Mazin, J.-M.) 233–266 (Geological Society of London, London, 2003).

  38. 38.

    Zweers, G. A., Berkhoudt, H. & Vanden Berge, J. C. in Advances in Comparative and Environmental Physiology Vol. 18 (eds Bels V. L., Chardon M. & Vandewalle P.) 242−279 (Springer, Berlin & Heidelberg, 1994).

  39. 39.

    Diamond, A. W. Notes on the breeding biology and behavior of the magnificent frigatebird. Condor 75, 200–209 (1973).

  40. 40.

    Musters, C. J. M. Taxonomy of the genus Draco L. (Agamidae, Lacertilia, Reptilia). Zool. Verh. 199, 1–126 (1983).

  41. 41.

    Manzig, P. C. et al. Discovery of a rare pterosaur bone bed in a Cretaceous desert with insights on ontogeny and behavior of flying reptiles. PLoS ONE 9, e100005 (2014).

  42. 42.

    Charrier, R., Pinto, L. & Rodríguez, M. P. in The Geology of Chile (eds Moreno, T. & Gibbon, W.) 21−114 (Geological Society of London, London, 2007).

  43. 43.

    Bell, C. M. & Padian, K. Pterosaur fossils from the Cretaceous of Chile: evidence for a pterosaur colony on an inland desert plain. Geol. Mag. 132, 31–38 (1995).

  44. 44.

    Martill, D. M., Frey, E., Bell, C. M. & Chong Diaz, G. Ctenochasmatid pterosaurs from Early Cretaceous deposits in Chile. Cretac. Res. 27, 603–610 (2006).

  45. 45.

    Martill, D. M., Vidovic, S. U., Howells, C. & Nudds, J. R. The oldest Jurassic dinosaur: a basal neotheropod from the Hettangian of Great Britain. PLoS ONE 11, e0154352 (2016).

  46. 46.

    Weedon, G. P., Jenkyns, H. C. & Page, K. N. Combined sea-level and climate controls on limestone formation, hiatuses and ammonite preservation in the Blue Lias Formation, South Britain (uppermost Triassic–Lower Jurassic). Geol. Mag. 155, 1117–1149 (2018).

  47. 47.

    Brazeau, M. D. Problematic character coding methods in morphology and their effects. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 104, 489–498 (2011).

  48. 48.

    Kellner, A. W. A. Comments on Triassic pterosaurs with discussion about ontogeny and description of new taxa. An. Acad. Bras. Ciênc 87, 669–689 (2015).

  49. 49.

    Goloboff, P. & Catalano, S. TNT version 1.5, including a full implementation of phylogenetic morphometrics. Cladistics 32, 221–238 (2016).

  50. 50.

    Boucot, J., Xu, C. & Scotese, C. R. Phanerozoic Paleoclimate: An Atlas of Lithologic Indicators of Climate (Concepts in Sedimentology and Paleontology Vol. 11, Society for Sedimentary Geology, Tulsa, 2013).

Download references


R. L. Hansen (US BLM’s Vernal Field Office) facilitated access under BLM permit UT08-025E. Funding and other support was provided by the BYU Geological Sciences Department and Museum of Paleontology, Dinosaur National Monument (D.J.C.) and University of Nebraska at Omaha (G.F.E.). N. Fraser and J. Clark provided information on the procolophonid and ‘Dimorphodon’ weintraubi, respectively. Segmentation was performed by A. J. Matthews and M. Colbert. M. Gonzales-Whittaker skilfully assisted with illustrations. Manual preparation was performed by S. Meek and C. Thelin. Thanks to J. Wilson for recommendations that improved an early version of the manuscript.

Author information

B.B.B., F.M.D.V., D.J.C. and G.F.E. designed the research project. B.B.B., F.M.D.V., D.J.C., G.F.E., R.D.S. and M.F.W. wrote the manuscript. B.B.B., D.J.C., G.F.E. and R.D.S. conducted the field work. F.M.D.V. coded the characters. F.M.D.V. and M.F.W. performed the phylogenetic analysis.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Brooks B. Britt.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary figures, tables, discussion and references

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Information 2

Pterosaur matrix for PAUP with all taxa included

Supplementary Information 3

Pterosaur data matrix for TNT converted from the PAUP matrix

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark
Fig. 1: Locality map.
Fig. 2: Stratigraphy and depositional environments of the Saints & Sinners Quarry.
Fig. 3: C. hanseni gen. et sp. nov., a Triassic dimorphodontid from the Nugget Sandstone near Vernal, Utah.
Fig. 4: Reconstructions of C. hanseni and D. macronyx.
Fig. 5: Phylogenetic relationships of C. hanseni gen. et sp. nov.