Pterodactyl Find Is a 'Discovery of the Century'

Fossil shows pterosaurs evolved huge wingspans much earlier than previously thought
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 22, 2022 2:54 PM CST

Paleontologists are heralding the "discovery of the century" in Scotland: a fossil of a pterodactyl with a wingspan wider than a king-size bed. The fossil, some 70% complete, is not only the best-preserved of any pterosaur but the largest of any pterosaur to come from the Jurassic period, per the Independent. Before the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, when an asteroid wiped out much of life on Earth, "there were pterosaurs living … that were the size of fighter jets," University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte tells the Guardian. But these prehistoric flyers were thought to have developed a wingspan beyond six feet only in the Cretaceous. This pterosaur, with a wingspan of more than eight feet, pushes back that timeline 25 million years.

"When this thing was living about 170 million years ago, it was the largest animal that had ever flown, at least that we know of," says Brusatte, co-author of a study on the find published Tuesday in Current Biology. And it was still growing. The pterosaur discovered on the Isle of Skye was "at most a teenager," as the Guardian puts it. Brusatte notes a full-grown adult might have had a wingspan of more than 10 feet. The fossil of the species dubbed Dearc sgiathanach (meaning "winged reptile" and "reptile from Skye" in Scottish Gaelic) also revealed sharp teeth for spearing fish and excellent eyesight, owing to large optic lobes. Brusatte notes the "crown jewel fossil" is about 70% complete, which is "really just outstanding for a pterosaur," whose bone walls were as thin as paper.

It was Amelia Penny, then a PhD student, who first spotted the skull during fieldwork in 2017. "To find a new Jurassic reptile, especially a fossil of this significance, is not something I’d ever dared to expect might happen to me," she tells the Guardian. "It's a discovery of the century," adds PhD student Natalia Jagielska, the study's lead author. She says "Britain hasn't seen this kind of preservation of pterosaurs in 200 years," since Mary Anning's discoveries on the Jurassic Coast. Pterosaur expert Dr. David Unwin of the University of Leicester notes less complete pterosaur fossils from the middle Jurassic indicate specimens of similar size, per the Guardian. Still, this is "a big piece of the puzzle in our evolutionary history of pterosaurs." (More discoveries stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.