During a fossil-hunting expedition to Scotland’s Isle of Skye in 2017, Ph.D. student Amelia Penny spotted something unusual at low tide. Protruding from the limestone was a piece of fossilized jawbone that she and her collegues suspected was from a 170-million-year-old giant flying reptile known as a pterosaur. Now, scientists have confirmed that the well-preserved fossil represents the largest pterosaur ever discovered from the Jurassic Period.
Pterosaurs, which are close cousins of dinosaurs, mastered flight some 50 million years before birds. Researchers behind the work say the fossil is not only the largest but the best-preserved skeleton of a pterosaur found in Scotland, and that the newly discovered species has a wingspan of more than eight feet.
“Even in the context of the amazing paleontological finds on Skye in recent years, this one really is remarkable,” says Nick Fraser National Museums Scotland in a statement. “To find and describe a specimen which is both so well-preserved and so significant is really special.”
To exhume the fossil from the limestone rock, the team used diamond-tipped saws and worked quickly against the incoming tide. The skeleton was successfully salvaged and brought to the University of Edinburgh where, after years of careful analysis, paleontologists determined the reptile was the largest pterosaur ever discovered from the Jurassic era. Their research is published in the journal Current Biology.
The team named gave the species the Gaelic name Dearc sgiathanach (pronounced jark ski-an-ach), which translates as "winged reptile" and honors the Isle of Skye, whose Gaelic name means "the winged isle," according to the press release.
Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to take to the skies and lived throughout the Mesozoic era, and as far back as the Triassic Period, about 230 million years ago. Later, in the Cretaceous Period, some species like Quetzalcoatlus reached the size of a small airplane, but pterosaurs had been thought to be much smaller during the Jurassic Period, according to Katie Hunt for CNN. The discovery of Dearc confirms pterosaurs reached impressive sizes much earlier in their evolutionary history than previously thought.
"Dearc is the biggest pterosaur we know from the Jurassic period, and that tells us that pterosaurs got larger much earlier than we thought, long before the Cretaceous period, when they were competing with birds—and that's hugely significant," Steve Brusatte, a professor of paleontology and evolution at the University of Edinburgh who was involved in the work, said in a statement.
Their analysis of the pterosaur's bones also revealed that the animal wasn't yet fully grown, suggesting the species can reach an even larger size in adulthood, Laura Geggel reports for Live Science. Scientists believe the west coast of Scotland was once a soupy, subtropical lagoon where pterosaurs feasted on seafood with their long, sharp teeth.
"Dearc is a fantastic example of why paleontology will never cease to be astounding," says Ph.D. student Natalia Jagielska, who led the research, to BBC’s Victoria Gill. "We look forward to studying Dearc in greater detail to discover more about how it lived and its behavior.”