When Dawndraco soared the US skies 89 million years ago, the Western Interior Seaway had split the land in two. Today, opinion is just as divided over whether “dawn dragon” really existed, or was just an offshoot of another species.
Popularly known as a “pterodactyl”, flying reptile or pterosaur Pteranodon probably spent most of its time scooping up fish in its long beak, so it’s no surprise a cluster of them was found buried under the remains of the above inland sea, now the Niobrara Formation in Kansas. After a 90-odd year stint in the basement of University of Alberta’s Paleo Museum, one of the best preserved specimens was examined more closely, and in 2010, Alexander Kellner named it the kick-ass new species Dawndraco kanzai, after the Kaw Indians of Kansas state.
This early bird was about the size of an Alsatian, and had a wing span of about 4 metres (13 feet). It would have been equally impressive and terrifying to see it in flight, and this was only possible because pterosaurs straddled all parts of the “make huge thing fly” Venn diagram.
To get airborne without mechanical aid you need three things: wings to create enough lift, hollow bones, and enough muscles to launch yourself into the air. Birds and bats only have two, so the pterosaurs were lords of the sky during the dinosaurs’ reign. But whether Dawndraco will come crashing down today is a different matter.
It was originally labelled as the subspecies Pteranodon sternbergi, but Kellner thought there were too many differences – beyond simply male vs. female or regional – like its extended rostrum (beak/snout) and the suspected curve of its head crest, thought to point backwards rather than upwards. It also had a lacrimal bone, so apparently unlike its winged compatriots, Dawndraco was able to “cry”. But as we have seen, fossilisation and lack of eye witnesses can muddy the waters a bit.
In 2017, Martin-Silverstone and co. challenged Kellner’s classification, unconvinced it was enough to justify a new species and suggesting the differences were probably due to incomplete remains (e.g. we just haven’t found the lacrimal bones of the other Pteranodons), the strains of turning into a fossil, or just individuality, because saying they all look the same would be extremely uncool. For his part, Kellner responded as quickly as a pterosaur snapping up a fish, arguing that they agreed on the differences, just not what caused them, and gently finger-wagging an implication he was a “splitter” – i.e. someone who tries to create new species out of the same animal for the kudos.
Somewhat hilariously, there’s a rebuttal of the rebuttal from the other authors, politely stating they don’t think Kellner is a splitter in his other works(!), and sticking to their guns that Dawndraco is just another Pteranodon sternbergi, with sexual, age-related or individual quirks.
At the time of writing the jury’s still out, so depending on where the hammer comes down, the “dawn dragon” might have to become “winged and toothless” again. Here’s hoping the name will simply pass to another, so the legend can live on.
Meaning: Dawn dragon from Kansas (Dawndraco Kanzai)
What? A flying, fish-eating prehistoric reptile, possibly an already-existing subspecies known as Pteranodon sternbergi, but the jury’s still out
Where? USA, 89-84 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous
How big? About the size of an Alsatian, with a wing span of about 4 metres / 13 feet
Probable motto: I’m an actual, physical animal with bones and everything, but I still might not exist! [Yes, I’m giving extinct animals mottos now. There are only so many times you can explain the gap.]
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
Acorn, John H. 2017. “Response to Kellner (2017) ‘Rebuttal of Martin-Silverstone, E., J.R.N. Glasier, J.H. Acorn, S. Mohr, and P.J. Currie, 2017“. Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology 3:90-92.
“Dawndraco kanzai Kellner 2010 (pterosaur)“. No date. Fossilworks.org.
“Fossils of future past“. 2013. National Geographic.
Hilton, Richard P. 2003. “Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles of California“. University of California Press.
Kellner, Alexander W.A. 2010. “Comments on the Pteranodontidae (Pterosauria, Pterodactyloidea) with the description of two new species“. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 82(4).
Kellner, Alexander. 2017. “Rebuttal of Martin-Silverstone et al. 2017, ‘Reassessment of Dawndraco kanzai Kellner 2010 and reassignment of the type specimen to Pteranodon sternbergi Harksen, 1966’”.Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology 3:47-59.
Live Science Staff. 2014. “Photos of pterosaurs: flight in the age of dinosaurs“. LiveScience.
Martin-Silverstone, Elizabeth G. et al. 2017. “Reassessment of Dawndraco kanzai Kellner, 2010 and reassignment of the type specimen to Pteranodon sterbergi Harksen, 1966“. Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology 3:81-89.
Parry, Wynne. 2014. “How pterosaurs ruled the skies above the dinosaurs“. LiveScience.
“Pteranodon set for new dawn in New York“. 2013. Folio.
Featured image credit: Shan Ahmed.