Careful investigation of a discovery first made by a doctoral student in 2017 has changed experts’ understanding of pterosaurs, the giant flying reptiles that inhabited the skies while dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The specimen is believed to be the largest ever discovered from the Jurassic period and it is described as one of the most intact fossilized pterosaurs ever found; well preserved fossils of this type are “exceedingly rare” according to paleontologists.
Pterosaur discovery belongs to newly identified species
The discovery was made during a field trip on the Scottish Isle of Skye by University of Edinburgh doctoral student Amelia Penny who spotted part of its jaw protruding from a rock formation.
The Isle of Skye, best known for its beautiful scenery and association with “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” is also a rich source of fossils from the Jurassic period.
Ranging from approximately 200 million years ago to 145 million years ago, the Jurassic was previously thought to have been too early for the appearance of large pterosaurs like the Scottish discovery.
Pterosaurs in the ensuing Cretaceous period grew to enormous sizes. Quetzalcoatlus, for instance, could reach the height of a giraffe and had the wingspan of a fighter jet.
The find from the Isle of Sky, now identified as belonging to a previously unknown species of pterosaur, was not nearly as large as its Cretaceous relatives, but it is much larger than any other examples from the Jurassic period.
With its 8.2 foot wingspan, it would still have been an imposing sight as it snatched up fish along the shore with its sharp fangs and teeth.
“Almost pristine condition”
The newly discovered species has been given the Gaelic name dearc sgiathanach, which means both “winged reptile” and “reptile from Skye.”
Researchers believe that the fossil they discovered belonged to pterosaur that was not fully grown, meaning that an adult of the species could have been even larger.
One of the major problems faced by paleontologists studying pterosaurs is the fact that finds like this are exceptionally rare, so the discovery from Skye could be the only dearc sgiathanach they ever have to investigate.
Fossilization can only occur under the right circumstances, and entire species may have evolved and died out without leaving a trace in the fossil record.
Dinosaur fossils are already uncommon enough, but fossilized pterosaurs are even rarer; thin and lightweight skeletons were needed for flying at their size and their bones were not the most well suited for fossilization.
Along with its belonging to a previously unknown species, the Skye discovery has been thrilling for scientists because it managed to defy all of these circumstances and survived to be uncovered in “almost pristine condition.”