The uppermost Cretaceous phosphate beds near Khourigba, Morocco have preserved a treasure trove of some of the last pterosaurs to live before the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction. One of these pterosaurs was the small nyctosaurid, Alcione elainus. Alcione was named in 2018 by Nick Longrich, David Martill, and Brian Andres, and is based on a partial skeleton as well as a great deal of additional fossils.
The only skull material known of Alcione is a referred mandible. The jaws are long, tapering, and toothless. The symphysis is extremely long and the bone is Y-shaped when seen from above. Nothing is known of the cranium, but it is likely its jaws were completely toothless like other nyctosaurids. It may or may not have borne a head crest, as relative Muzquizopteryx is crestless, but the family’s namesake genus, Nyctosaurus, has an enormous Y-shaped crest.
Most of the rest of the skeleton is known from the original specimen and various additional specimens. The wings are notable for being unusually proportioned. The forearm and hand bones are unusually strong and robust, as well as shortened in comparison to the humerus. Alcione was relatively small and its wings short, with an estimated wingspan of about 2 meters (6.5 feet), about the same as larger gull species.
Longrich and colleagues found Alcione to be a member of the Nyctosauridae, most closely related to Simurghia robusta, found in the same latest Cretaceous phosphate beds in Morocco. Nyctosaurids were marine fishers of the Late Cretaceous with long toothless upturned beaks, and are characterized by their distinctive humeri. They were close relatives of the pteranodontids, also toothless marine fishers. Nyctosaurids and pteranodontids were part of a lager lineage of pterosaurs called the ornithocheiroids, specialized fishers with large heads, long narrow wings, and relatively short necks and torsos.
The researchers pointed out that the shortened distal wings of Alcione meant it flew in a different way from other nyctosaurids. It may have flapped more rapidly rather than relying on soaring. Shortened wing tips reduce drag underwater and are also seen in modern plunge-diving birds like kingfishers, so Alcione may have dove into the ocean from great heights. Alcione was found in marine sediments deposited in relatively deep water off the coast of Africa in a time of higher sea levels. At the time, the area was slightly farther south, but still had a hot climate with a mountainous and arid mainland. The sea was teeming with fish and was patrolled by at least two other nyctosaurids and a pteranodontid, as well as marine reptiles.
The generic name is a reference to Halkyónē (also Alkyone, Halcyon, and Alcyone) of Greek myth. She and her husband Kēüx (also Ceyx) made a habit of calling each other “Zeus” and “Hera.” This pillowtalk blasphemy angered Zeus, so he sank Kēüx’s ship with a bolt of lightning as punishment. Halkyónē, upon being informed of the murder by Kēüx’s ghost jumped off a cliff into the sea, overwhelmed by grief. Zeus felt remorseful, but instead of easing the pain he inflicted on Halkyónē and Kēüx, he turned them both into kingfishers. The story of Halkyónē and Kēüx have also inspired the scientific names of several kingfishers. The name is also an allusion to the similar habits of Alcione and kingfishers.