Mysterious remains of an ancient flying reptile found hidden among shark fossils


to fly

A type of North African pterosaur believed to be similar to that discovered by researchers at the University of Portsmouth.

Davide Bonadonna

Sifting through a shark fossil drawer earlier this year, British graduate student Roy Smith made a surprising and exciting discovery: the remains of a flying reptile that lived more than 60 million years ago.

Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, he was examining fossil shark fin spines from two collections of the British Museum when he noticed that some fragments contained neural foramina, or tiny but perceptible holes where nerves rise to the surface to perceive the prey. Shark fin spines don’t have it, so Smith quickly realized that some sharks weren’t like others.

In fact, they didn’t even come from creatures of the sea, but creatures of the air: toothless pterosaurs, an enigmatic flying reptile, and the first vertebrates known to have evolved in powered flight. Smith describes the discovery in a study just published online in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Two of the discovered specimens can be identified as a pterosaur (from the Greek winged lizard) called Ornithostoma. Another probably represents a new species.

Roy Smith is holding a small pterosaur fossil he found in a drawer full of shark spine fragments.

Roy Smith

“I love the fact that this little bone has been in a museum drawer for more than 120 years, and no shark expert has ever come and said, ‘Oi, this isn’t a shark,'” said Professor Dave. Martill, a paleobiologist at the University of Portsmouth and supervisor of Smith. “It took a pterosaur researcher with some free time to make this great discovery.”

That researcher, 26, has been in love with fossil hunting since childhood. But this discovery easily ranks high on his paleontologist pride list.

“I was incredibly happy and excited because toothless pterosaur remains are very rare in Britain,” says Smith, who studied pterosaur conservation for his Ph.D. “Only two species have been found in England”.

Smith found pterosaur fossils in collections belonging to both Cambridge University’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and Brighton’s Booth Museum of Natural History. The finding suggests a greater diversity of these rare toothless pterosaurs. But it is also significant in demonstrating that studying existing materials can yield entirely new scientific discoveries.

“It’s amazing that new specimens of unknown animals can be found lurking in the drawers of the museum,” says Smith.

The beak piece belonging to the new species differs from the Ornithostoma in subtle ways, “perhaps in the way a great white heron might differ from a heron,” explains Martill, but the fossils are too fragmented to lead to a new species name. .

“It’s a paleontological mystery,” says Smith, who doubts that further remains of this species will be found. He remains confident, however, and plans to keep looking once museums open after COVID.

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