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Winged reptiles known as pterosaurs – airplane-size creatures that swooped through the skies as dinosaurs walked the Earth – were the first vertebrate animals to evolve powered flight.
A spectacular three-dimensional fossil of one previously unknown pterosaur has been discovered on the shore of the Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland.
With a wingspan of more than 2.5 meters (8.2 feet), it’s the biggest pterosaur ever discovered from the Jurassic period and last flapped its wings 170 million years ago. Its sharp teeth, which would have snapped up fish, still retain their shiny enamel.
In the Cretaceous period, immediately before the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus reached the size of fighter jets, with a 12-meter (40-foot) wingspan.
However, this fossil discovery confirms pterosaurs, sometimes popularly known as pterodactyls, were already very large much earlier in their evolutionary history.
“Pterosaurs preserved in such quality are exceedingly rare and are usually reserved to select rock formations in Brazil and China. And yet, an enormous superbly preserved pterosaur emerged from a tidal platform in Scotland,” said Natalia Jagielska, a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh. She was the lead author of a paper on the fossil that published Tuesday in the journal Current Biology.
The fossil was discovered during a field trip in 2017, after a University of Edinburgh doctoral student, Amelia Penny, spotted its jaw protruding from the rock at an area of Skye known in Gaelic as Rubha nam Brathairean, or Brothers’ Point.
The pterosaur has been given the Gaelic name Dearc sgiathanach (pronounced jark ski-an-ach), which translates to “winged reptile.”
“This is a superlative Scottish fossil. The preservation is amazing, far beyond any pterosaur ever found in Scotland and probably the best British skeleton found since the days of Mary Anning in the early 1800s,” said Steve Brusatte, professor and Personal Chair of Palaeontology and Evolution in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh.
“Dearc is the biggest pterosaur we know from the Jurassic period, and that tells us that pterosaurs got larger much earlier than we thought, long before the Cretaceous period when they were competing with birds, and that’s hugely significant.”
Anning, an unsung pioneer of paleontology, discovered the 3-meter-long (9.8-foot-long) Plesiosaurus in Dorset, southern England, in 1823. The incredible fossil, the first of the species to be found intact with its snakelike neck, wowed the world, setting in motion a dinomania that gripped Victorian England and continues to this day.
A number of astounding discoveries have been made in this area of Skye in recent years, including the footprints of Stegosaurus and other dinosaurs. Paleontologists believe it was once a subtropical lagoon and home to a thriving community of dinosaurs.
Jagielska will continue to study the skeleton to understand how the ancient creature lived and flew.
“To achieve flight, pterosaurs had hollow bones with thin bone walls, making their remains incredibly fragile and unfit to (preserve) for millions of years,” she said.
“And yet our skeleton, 160 million years on since its death, remains in almost pristine condition, articulated and almost complete … as if he were alive mere weeks ago.”