Targaryendraco – Unravelling the Ornithocheiridae
Targaryendraco – When the Pterosauria and “Game of Thrones” Meet
The Ornithocheiridae is one of the most extensively researched of all the pterosaur families. However, this family of flying reptiles has a reputation amongst researchers for being one of the most difficult when it comes to mapping out their taxonomy. The fragmentary fossils (usually jaw tips), first studied in the middle of the 19th century, has led to the erection of all kinds of genera and species. Many palaeontologists are trying to make sense of this complicated and confused taxonomy, trying to unpick and unravel all those dubious pterosaurs assigned from the Cambridge Greensand of southern England and from the Lower Cretaceous deposits of central Germany as well as elsewhere in the world.
A team of researchers writing in the academic journal “Historical Biology”, have reassessed a specimen housed at the State Museum of Natural History – Stuttgart (Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde). This specimen, the most complete pterosaur fossil known from Lower Cretaceous deposits in Germany, consists of material from the lower jaws, (including the jaw tips), a partial rib as well as elements from the forelimbs, hand and fingers. Originally assigned to the Ornithocheirus genus and named Ornithocheirus wiedenrothi, the authors build on previous studies that questioned whether this specimen represented a species of Ornithocheirus, redescribe it and assign this pterosaur to its own genus – Targaryendraco. The trivial name is still retained, honouring amateur palaeontologist Kurt Wiedenroth who discovered the fossil material back in 1984.
A Life Reconstruction of Targaryendraco wiedenrothi
Picture Credit: Vitor Silva
The “Game of Thrones” Connection
The genus name is a combination of Targaryen and “draco” from the Latin for dragon. Targaryen is one of the Houses in the fictional chronicles “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R. R. Martin, upon which the television series “Game of Thrones” is based. The dragons of the popular saga have dark coloured bones, the type specimen of Targaryendraco wiedenrothi is a dark grey colour, caused by mineralisation from the surrounding matrix. The name also references the connection between pterosaurs and dragons, a link cited almost since the first fossils of these flying reptiles came to be known by western science.
The Holotype Lower Jaw with Line Drawings (Targaryendraco wiedenrothi)
Picture Credit: Alexander Kellner and Taissa Rodrigues
A New Clade of Pterosaurs – the Targaryendraconia
The researchers, Rodrigo V. Pêgas, Borja Holgado and Maria Eduarda C. Leal undertook a phylogenetic analysis based on the three-dimensional German fossils and subsequently erected a new clade of pterosaurs – the Targaryendraconia which consists of six genera (see below). This new clade is both geographically and temporally widespread and demonstrates that the diversity of Lower Cretaceous toothy pterosaurs was higher than previously thought.
The six genera assigned to the clade Targaryendraconia:
- Targaryendraco – described in 2019 from fossil material found in near Hannover in Germany.
- Aussiedraco – described in 2011 from fossils found in Queensland, Australia.
- Barbosania – described in 2011 (Santana Formation of north-eastern Brazil).
- Camposipterus – redescribed in 2013 and known from the Cambridge Greensand formation.
- Aetodactylus – described in 2010 and known from Texas (USA).
- Cimoliopterus – redescribed in 2013 and known from fragmentary fossils from Texas and Kent in south-eastern England.
Studying the ornithocheirids might be like trying to untie the Gordian Knot of ancient mythology, but at least with this new assessment, a small part of this complicated fossil collection has been unravelled.