Tuesday, 17 January 2023


If you could travel through time and go back to observe our ancient skies, you would see massive pterosaurs — huge, winged flying reptiles of the extinct order Pterosauria — cruising along with you.

They soared our skies during most of the Mesozoic — from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous (228 to 66 million years ago). 

By the end of the Cretaceous, they had grown to giants and one of their brethren, Quetzalcoatlus, a member of the family Azhdarchidae, boasts being the largest known flying animal that ever lived. They were the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight. Their wings were formed by a membrane of skin, muscle, and other tissues stretching from the ankles to a dramatically lengthened fourth finger.

We divide their lineage into two major types: basal pterosaurs and pterodactyloids. Basal pterosaurs — also called 'non-pterodactyloid pterosaurs' or ‘rhamphorhynchoids’ — were smaller with fully toothed jaws and longish tails. Their wide wing membranes connected to their hind legs giving them some maneuverability on the ground, but with an awkward sprawling posture. Picture a bat trying to walk or crawl along — doable but painful to watch. They were better climbers with flexible joint anatomy and strong claws. Basal pterosaurs preferred to dine on insects and small vertebrates.

Later pterosaurs (pterodactyloids) evolved many sizes, shapes, and lifestyles. Pterodactyloids had narrower wings with free hind limbs, highly reduced tails, and long necks with large heads. On the ground, pterodactyloids walked better than their earlier counterparts, maneuvering all four limbs smoothly with an upright posture. 

They walked standing plantigrade on the hind feet and folding the wing finger upward to walk on the three-fingered "hand." These later pterosaurs were more nimble. They could take off from the ground, run and wade and swim. Their jaws had horny beaks and some of these later groups lacked the teeth of earlier lineages. Some groups developed elaborate head crests that were likely used to attract mates' sexy-pterosaur style.

So can we or have we found pterosaurs on Hornby Island? The short answer is yes.

Collishaw Point, known locally as Boulder Point, Hornby Island
Hornby Island is a lovely lush, island in British Columbia's northern Gulf Islands. It was formed from sediments of the upper Nanaimo Group which are also widely exposed on adjacent Denman Island and the southern Gulf Islands.

Peter Mustard, a geologist from the Geologic Survey of Canada, did considerable work on the geology of the island. It has a total stratigraphic thickness of 1350 m of upper Nanaimo Group marine sandstone, conglomerate and shale. 

These are partially exposed in the Campanian to the lower Maastrichtian outcrops at Collishaw Point on the northwest side of Hornby Island. Four formations underlie the island from oldest to youngest, and from west to east: the Northumberland, Geoffrey, Spray and Gabriola.

During the upper Cretaceous, between ~90 to 65 Ma, sediments derived from the Coast Belt to the east and the Cascades to the southeast poured seaward to the west and northwest into what was the large ancestral Georgia Basin. This major forearc basin was situated between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. The rocks you find here originated far to the south in Baja California and are the right age and type of sediment for a pterosaur find. But are we California dreaming?

Upper Cretaceous Nanaimo Group Fossil Concretion
Well, truth be told, we were with one of the potential pterosaur finds from Hornby. 

It wasn't just hopeful thinking that had the west coast in a paleo uproar many ago when Sharon Hubbard of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society found what looked very much like a pterosaur.

Right time period. Right location. And, we have found them here in the past. Sandy McLachlan found the first definitive pterosaur, an azhdarchid, back in 2008.

But was Sharon's find a pterosaur? Victoria Arbour, a Canadian evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist working as a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and Royal Ontario Museum, certainly thought so. 

While Arbour is an expert on ankylosaurs, our lumbering armoured dinosaurs friends, she has studied pterosaurs and participated in the naming of Gwawinapterus from Hornby Island. But here's the thing — bony material encased in stone and let to cement for millions of years can be tricky.

While this fossil find was initially described as a very late-surviving member of the pterosaur group Istiodactylidae, further examination cast doubt on the identification. Once more detail was revealed the remains were published as being those of a saurodontid fish, an ambush predator with very sharp serrated teeth and elongate, torpedo-like bodies that grew up to two meters. 

Not a pterosaur but still a massively exciting find. Arbour was very gracious at the renaming, taking it in stride. She has since gone on to name a partial ornithischian dinosaur from Sustut Basin, as well as the ankylosaurs Zuul, Zaraapelta, Crichtonpelta, and Ziapelta. But she may have another shot at a pterosaur.

Dan Bowen, Chair, VIPS. Photo: Deanna Steptoe Graham
In 2019, Dan Bowen, Chair of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society and a truly awesome possum, found some very interesting bones in concretion on Hornby. 

The concretion was nestled amongst the 72 million-year-old grey shales of the Northumberland Formation, Campanian to the lower Maastrichtian, part of the Cretaceous Nanaimo Group from Collishaw Point.

The site is known as Boulder Point to the locals and it has been a popular fossil destination for many years. It is the same site where Sharon made her find years earlier.

The concretion contains four articulated vertebrae that looked to be fish at first glance. Jay Hawley, a local fossil enthusiast was asked to prep the block to reveal more details. Once the matrix was largely removed the vertebrae inside were revealed to be bird bones, not fish and not another saurodontid as originally thought. Palaeontologist Victoria Arbour was called back in to put her keen lens on the discovery. 

You will appreciate that she took a good long look at the specimen and confirmed it to be a bird or a pterosaur. We still do not have confirmation on which it is as yet. The delicate bony material is very flattened with a very shallow u-shape on the bottom but will need additional study to confirm if the skies above California were once home to a great pterosaur who died, was fossilized then rode our tectonic plates to now call Hornby home. It is a great story and one that I am keen to follow.

References: To learn more about the azhdarchid remains found by Sandy McLachlan, check out the paper by Martin-Silverston et al. 2016.