Fossils first discovered in northeast Scotland more than 100 years ago have been identified as belonging to an early ancestor of pterosaurs – the iconic flying reptiles of the dinosaur age.

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Researchers based at National Museums Scotland identified Scleromochlus taylori by making casts of impressions left in sandstone by several specimens of the reptile found in northeast Scotland. They then CT scanned these impressions and recreated the skeletons of Scleromochlus using 3D modelling software.

CT scan data of the fossils was used by Matt Humpage of Northern Rogue Studios to create finely detiled 3D models of Scleromochlus’ skeleton.
CT scan data of the fossils was used by Matt Humpage of Northern Rogue Studios to create finely detailed 3D models of Scleromochlus’ skeleton. © Paul Barrett

This enabled them to piece together the fine details of the early reptiles’ anatomy and place them in the family tree of lagerpetids, the closest relatives to pterosaurs.

Scleromochlus was a small, cat-sized animal that lived in what is now Elgin in northeast Scotland, around 230 million years ago.

Identifying Scleromochlus had previously proved problematic due to the difficulty in correctly identifying the fine detail in its anatomy.

One of the sandstone samples used in the study. The imprint of Scleromochlus is visible in the centre of the stone.
One of the sandstone samples used in the study. The imprint of Scleromochlus is visible in the centre of the stone. © Paul Barrett

“It’s exciting to be able to resolve a debate that’s been going on for over a century,” said lead researcher Dr Davide Foffa, a former research associate at National Museums Scotland.

“But it is far more amazing to be able to see and understand an animal which lived 230 million years ago and its relationship with the first animals ever to have flown.”

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Authors

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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