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Flying 'frozen dragon of the north' dinosaur with F-16-sized wingspan discovered

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The fossil discovery shows that a new species of pterosaur, Cryodrakon boreas, dominated the skies above North America about 75 million years ago. (Photo: David Maas)

With a wingspan of up to 33 feet, weighing up to 550 pounds and standing 13 feet tall, the newly discovered "Cryodrakon boreas" is one of the largest flying animals ever discovered, according to a study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

"Cryodrakon boreas" is Greek for "frozen dragon of the north wind" and the pterosaur's bones were discovered in the icy badlands of Alberta, Canada in 1992.

While paleontologists have known about the bones for decades, they confirmed that the bones belonged to a new genus, according to the study published Tuesday.

The animals lived between 76.9 and 75.8 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. The Cryodrakon didn't have teeth or a way to chew food, so scientists believe it would eat whatever it could fit down its throat; anything from lizards to small mammals, and even baby dinosaurs.

While it sounds like something out of "Game of Thrones" this "frozen dragon" wouldn't have made a good pet for Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow, as this flying reptile didn't breathe fire and looked more like a winged giraffe-like pelican than anything resembling an imagined dragon.

Study coauthor Mike Habib, a paleontologist at the University of Southern California, told National Geographic, and SciTech Daily:

The animal, when alive, would not have been a frozen dragon. It would have flying in a landscape that would have been reasonably temperate ... but a hell of a lot warmer than central Alberta is now. They have been inspiration for countless movie monsters and they were critical parts of global ecosystems worldwide during the Age of Dinosaurs, so they are key to understanding the ecology and extinctions of that time. And, just like flying animals today, they could carry important clues about how animals at the time responded to major changes in climate.”

Habib was able to make a new discovery from old bones thanks to the help of study co-author Dave Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London.

The pair worked together with the "exceptionally well preserved" specimen consisting of parts of the Cryodrakon's wings, legs, neck, and rib.

Habib told SciTech Daily:

This type of pterosaur [azhdarchids] is quite rare, and most specimens are just a single bone. Our new species is represented by a partial skeleton. This tells us a great deal about the anatomy of these large fliers, how they flew, and how they lived. This particular group of pterosaurs includes the largest flying animals of all time. Their anatomy holds important clues about the limits of animal flight and may be important in the future for biologically inspired mechanical design for flight.

According to the Washington Post, Hone had a "Eureka moment" after noticing a unique pattern of holes in the fossils. But it took years for researchers to cross-check the specimen with other pterosaur remains in Asia and Europe to determine it was a new species.

If you want to learn more about the Cryodrakon, check out this in-depth feature in National Geographic.

You can see their measurements in this Excel spreadsheet here:

More data from the study: