Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

Fossils unearthed in the Gobi Desert are from a pterosaur about the size of a small airplane, the first solid evidence of such a large winged dinosaur in Central Asia, a research team found.

The three fossilized neck bones were discovered in 2006 in Mongolia from a stratum dating back to the latter half of the Cretaceous Period (70 million years ago).

The pterosaur is estimated to have had a wingspan of around 10 meters and a length of 5 meters. Its size is comparable to that of a tyrannosaur, one of the largest carnivores of the time, or a giraffe, the tallest land animal today.

The findings of the team, including Takanobu Tsuihiji, a lecturer of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Tokyo, have been published in the online edition of the U.S. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Fossilized pterosaur remains are rare because their bones were lightweight and fragile.

An analysis of the fossils showed many small hollows that likely helped to reduce the pterosaur’s weight, making it easier to fly.

The fossilized bones are each 20 centimeters wide. The creature is estimated to be as large as Quetzalcoatlus, which is said to have inhabited North America and was one of the biggest flying animals in history.

Some experts theorize that large pterosaurs used their huge bills to prey on small dinosaurs.

The pterosaur would likely have existed at the same time as Tarbosaurus, a large carnivore in the tyrannosaurid family that also inhabited what is now Mongolia.

“The pterosaur likely competed with Tarbosaurus, which was at the top of the local ecosystem, in preying on small dinosaurs,” Tsuihiji said.