A newly developed website catalogs more than 1,300 specimens of extinct flying reptiles called pterosaurs, thus enabling users to map out the ancient creatures on Google Earth. The goal is to help researchers find trends in the evolution and diversity of theseancient winged reptiles.
"Having a very specific database like this, which is just for looking at individual fossil specimens of pterosaurs, is very helpful, because you can ask questions that you couldn't have answered with bigger databases [of more animals]," said Matthew McLain, a doctoral candidate in paleontology at Loma Linda University in California and one of the three developers of the site. McLain and his colleagues call their database PteroTerra.
Pterosaurs were the first flying vertebrates. They lived between 228 million and 66 million years ago, and went extinct around the end of the Cretaceous period. During that time, this group evolved to be incredibly diverse. Some were tiny, like the sparrow-size Nemicolopterus crypticus, which lived 120 million years ago in what is now China. Others were simply huge, like Quetzalcoatlus, which was as tall as a giraffe and probably went around spearing little dinosaurs with its beak like a stork might snack on frogs.
Paleontological databases are common tools, because they allow researchers to navigate through descriptions of fossil specimens. One of the largest, the Paleobiology Database, has more than 50,000 individual entries.
McLain and his colleagues wanted something more targeted. They painstakingly built PteroTerra from the ground up. McLain, as the paleontologist on the project, read published papers on pterosaurs and visited museums to catalog specimens.
"I think we have every species represented, so in that sense, it's pretty complete," he told Live Science. The database does not contain every specimen of pterosaur material ever found — tens of thousands of fossil fragments have been discovered — but McLain hopes to get other paleontologists on board as administrators to upload their specimen data.