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Mystery species of prehistoric flying reptile found amongst museum fossils © Getty Images

Mystery species of prehistoric flying reptile found amongst museum fossils

Published: 10th November, 2020 at 16:04
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Pterosaurs ruled the skies millions of years ago but the new find is like nothing palaeontologists have seen before.

A trawl through century-old fossil collections has led to a surprising find – a new mystery species of pterosaur.


The legendary flying lizards ruled the skies millions of years ago but the new find is like nothing palaeontologists have seen before.

It was discovered by University of Portsmouth PhD student Roy Smith, who found the puzzling creature among fossil collections housed in the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum at Brighton.

The fossils in the collections were found by workmen digging in the English Fens in the latter half of the 19th Century.

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What were believed to be fossils of shark spines, he realised, were actually fragments of jaws of toothless pterosaurs.

The pieces did resemble shark spines but Smith says there are key differences that allow them to be distinguished.

“One such feature are tiny little holes where nerves come to the surface and are used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs,” he said.

“Shark fin spines do not have these, but the early palaeontologists clearly missed these features.

“Two of the specimens discovered can be identified as a pterosaur called Ornithostoma, but one additional specimen is clearly distinct and represents a new species. It is a palaeontological mystery.”

The specimen found is too fragmentary to be the basis for naming the new species, he says.

“Sadly, it is doubtful if any more remains of this pterosaur will be discovered, as there are no longer any exposures of the rock from which the fossils came," he added.

However, Smith hopes that other museum collections may contain more pieces of the mystery creature and vowed to continue his search as soon as coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

Professor Dave Martill, Smith’s supervisor at the University of Portsmouth, says the small piece of the unknown pterosaur is “tantalising”.

“This is extremely exciting to have discovered this mystery pterosaur right here in the UK,” he added.


“This find is significant because it adds to our knowledge of these ancient and fascinating flying prehistoric reptiles, but also demonstrates that such discoveries can be made, simply by re-examining material in old collections.”

Reader Q&A: Why aren't pterosaurs classed as dinosaurs?

Asked by Neil Black, Sheffield

Pterosaurs (flying prehistoric reptiles) and dinosaurs (also reptiles) share a common reptilian ancestor that lived some 240 million years ago, but the two groups then followed different evolutionary paths.

Dinosaurs are characterised by distinctive features of the skeleton, including a window-like opening in the pelvis where the thigh bone connects. Pterosaurs don’t have this joint, and they have their own unique features such as extra-long fourth fingers that support their wings. Pterosaurs are no more dinosaurs than we are chimpanzees.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


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