Sunday, June 23, 2019

Alanqa: Beast of the Week

Today we will be looking at an interesting pterosaur, Alanqa saharica!

Alanqa was a pterosaur that lived in what is now Morocco in Northern Africa, during the late Cretaceous Period, about 95 million years ago.  It was a relatively large pterosaur, with an estimated wingspan of up to twenty feet in the largest known individual.  The genus name translates to "phoenix"in Arabic in reference to the mythical bird.  When alive, Alanqa was most likely a meat eater.

Alanqa saharica life reconstruction in watercolors by Christopher DiPiazza.

Alanqa isn't known from too much fossil material, mostly beak and a vertebrae, but judging by these pieces, and comparing them with the proportions of other more completely known pterosaurs that were related to Alanqa, we can get a decent estimate of its overall size.  Alanqa was a member of the Azhdarchid family of pterosaurs.  Azhdarchids were primarily dominant during the Late Cretaceous and produced the largest animals to fly of all time, let alone the largest pterosaurs.  They are characterized by having proportionally huge skulls (longer than their torsos) with long tapering beaks devoid of teeth.  Many also had extremely long, but not very flexible, necks.  Azhdarchids are also thought to have been comfortable walking on land, even though evidence shows they could fly very well and for long distances, too.  A modern analog that is often made for them is today's storks and herons. (Although it is important to note that birds are NOT the same as pterosaurs.  They are purely convergent to each other.)  The extremely large Quetzalcoatlus, is the most well-known member of this family.

Part of Alanqa's beak.  Image from Ibrahim's 2010 paper.

The front of Alanqa's beak was narrow and pointed, like an extremely large pair of tweezers, great for targeting and plucking prey out of specific places, which typical for azhdarchids.  However, farther back in Alanqa's jaws were protrusions growing from the upper and lower parts of the beak, that would come together as the jaws closed.  It reminds me of the tool used to crack lobster shells, to be honest, and this very well may be what these unique adaptations were used for!  Alanqa very well may have been a specialist in eating prey with shells, like crustaceans, mollusks, and maybe even turtles?  It's also a possibility that Alanqa was an efficient scavenger and used these bony structures to crack open bones to get to the marrow inside?  I can imagine Alanqa wading around in shallow water with the narrow tip of its beak submerged, moving from side to side or probing into the mud as it uses its sense of touch to scan for any hiding prey.  When it finds something it grabs it with the tweezer-like front of its jaws then cocks its head back to maneuver the food item to the back, where it is cracked to pieces and swallowed!  This is all just speculation, of course.  But the fact of the matter is Alanqa did have a cool, unique adaptation of some kind in the back of its jaws.  We may never know for sure its purpose!

This is basically Alanqa's face...just tiny and made of metal.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below!


Ibrahim, Nizar; Unwin, David M; Martill, David M; Baidder, Lahssen; Zouhri, Samir (2010). "A New Pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Upper Cretaceous of Morocco". PLoS ONE. 5 (5): e10875.

Martill, David M; Ibrahim, Nizar (2015). "An unusual modification of the jaws in cf. Alanqa, a mid-Cretaceous azhdarchid pterosaur from the Kem Kem beds of Morocco". Cretaceous Research. 53: 59.

Witton, Mark P.; Habib, Michael B.; Laudet, Vincent (15 November 2010). "On the Size and Flight Diversity of Giant Pterosaurs, the Use of Birds as Pterosaur Analogues and Comments on Pterosaur Flightlessness". PLoS ONE5 (11): e13982. 

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