Pteranodon set for new dawn in New York

(Edmonton) When scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York went in search of the world's best specimen of a pteranodon, a flying lizard that dates back to the Late Cretaceous, they had to look far, but they didn't have to get very dirty.

The bones were found not in a creek bed or sticking out of the side of a cliff, but in the basement of the Earth Sciences Building on permanent exhibition in the University of Alberta's Paleontology Museum.

"The reason the American Museum of Natural History wants it is because it is actually one of the best-preserved intact skeletons in the world," said Clive Coy, senior technician in the U of A's Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology. "They asked us if we could mould and cast it and send them a copy for their new exhibit."

The flying reptile, which is known in pop culture as a pterodactyl and is what comes to mind when people think of a flying dinosaur, was unearthed by longtime U of A paleontology technician emeritus Allan Lindoe-who worked at the U of A for 44 years before retiring in 2011-while excavating a chalk deposit near Utica, Kansas, back in 1974.

It was put on display in the Paleo Museum in the early '80s, but because of a backlog of specimens that dates back to the 1920s, wasn't described until 2010.

What researchers discovered was a brand new animal that lived some 86 million years ago. It was named Dawndraco kanzai, which translates roughly to "dawn dragon from Kansas."

"It's not a dinosaur, but rather a lizard, about the size of a German Shepherd, that would have hunted much like a pelican, skimming close to the surface and capturing fish as its diet," said Coy.

He says what makes this specimen so rare is the delicate matter that the bones were found in. After meeting its death, this pteranodon was slowly covered by a fine rain of extremely fine sediment at the bottom of a body of water.

"In Alberta, we have lots of big beautiful dinosaurs, but they are usually found in coarse-grained sandstone, which is fine for preserving big-boned dinosaurs but is not great conditions for smaller, fine-boned animals," said Coy. "Up here, we only find pieces of bone of animals like this."

The delicate nature of the specimen posed some interesting problems for Coy and his team. Coy first prepped the pteranodon with some modern plastics to harden the bone and backfilled some portions so the mould would pull off the wall.

Then he went to work creating the mould by laboriously painting on a rubber material used most often in Hollywood for creating masks.

"When I was pulling off the mould, my heart was in my throat because it is so fragile. I had visions of bone peeling off the wall and sticking to the mould," he said.

It turns out his anxiety was all for naught as the mould peeled off as planned. He then filled that mould with a resin-like material that is now the cast to be sent.

Coy says he hopes to ship the copy in November. In the meantime, he is looking to make another cast to perhaps mount outside the Second Cup coffee shop in the Biological Sciences Building.

"I think it speaks to the significance and stature of our campus museums that our specimen was sought out by one of the most famous museums in the world," said Coy.