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Ancient ‘Dragon’ Pterosaur Flew Right Out of ‘Avatar’

A sprawling ancient flying reptile looked so much like a dragon that could have flown with the aerial predators called "ikran" in the film "Avatar" that its discoverers named the newfound beast after those mountain banshees.

The pterosaur, dubbed Ikrandraco avatar ("draco" means "dragon" in Latin), may have stored food in a throat pouch like a pelican does, the researchers said.

Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to flap wings to fly. Before pterosaurs went extinct in the catastrophic impact that ended the Age of Dinosaurs, they were the biggest animals that ever flew, with wingspans measuring up to 39 feet (12 meters). (Although pterosaurs lived alongside dinosaurs, these flying reptiles were not dinosaurs.)

Image: Ikrandraco
The pterosaur known as Ikrandraco avatar may have stored food in a throat pouch similar to a pelican's. Chuang Zhao / Chuang Zhao

Scientists investigated two partial skeletons of Ikrandraco dating back about 120 million years, to the Early Cretaceous Period. They unearthed these fossils in arid hills in northeastern China's Liaoning province, which has become famous for the trove of feathered dinosaurs unearthed there over the last decade. Back when this reptile was alive, the area where it was found was a large freshwater lake. [Images of Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs]

The pterosaur was about 2.3 feet (0.7 meters) long and had a wingspan of about 4.9 feet (1.5 meters). It had an elongated skull and a unique crest or bladelike bulge of bone on the tip of its lower jaw. The head of this newfound pterosaur is similar to that of the ikran in "Avatar," said lead study author Xiaolin Wang of the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

The back of Ikrandraco's jaw crest had a little hooklike structure. The researchers suggested this notch may have served as an anchor for soft tissue, and they proposed that Ikrandraco had a throat pouch like the one a pelican uses to store food.

The researchers plan to conduct experiments to see whether Ikrandraco's jaw crest could have supported a throat pouch. The scientists detailed their findings online Thursday in Scientific Reports.

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Follow LiveScience on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.