Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Pterosaur: A unique flying reptile that flew over the Isle of Skye

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Maria Gill
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  • Written by Georgina Ranard
  • BBC science correspondent

source image, Natural History Museum

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The wings, spine, and legs of the flying reptile were found, but the skull was not found

A unique type of flying reptile, or pterosaur, that lived 166-168 million years ago has been discovered on the Isle of Skye.

Its wings, shoulders, legs, and spine were found in a rock on the beach, but the fossil's skull was missing.

Scientists were surprised to find pterosaurs from this period off the west coast of Scotland, most of which are believed to have lived in China.

The creature – called Ceoptera – is the second pterosaur to be found on Skye.

Its name comes from the Scottish Gaelic word cheò, meaning fog, and is a reference to the Gaelic name of the island of Psyche – Eilean a' Cheò or Mist Island.

Fossils from this era, called the Middle Jurassic, are extremely rare, says Dr Liz Martin-Silverstone of the University of Bristol, who used a CT scanner to make a 3D digital model of the fossil.

“Finding anything from that time period that is more than just a single bone is really exciting,” she says.

The creature's wingspan was likely about 1 meter to 1.5 metres.

Professor Steve Brusatte, who was not involved in the research, says it is unique to Scotland. He adds that the research proves the existence of a type of pterosaur between the primitive and advanced stages of evolution.

He added: “This is a time before birds, so pterosaurs ruled the skies. This research shows that pterosaurs were common animals in Scotland, flying above the heads of dinosaurs.”

source image, NHM & Witton

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He explains that in the Middle Jurassic, Scotland was part of an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a subtropical climate with beaches and lakes, where pterosaurs may have liked to live.

Scientists at the Natural History Museum first found the fossil buried in rocks during an excavation in 2006.

“We were looking at a very dark black bone on a very dark gray rock. We were crawling on our hands and knees, looking for little smears of bone on the surface,” says Dr. Paul Barrett, who was on the expedition.

He adds that the team carried the fragile fossil in their backpacks on the return trip to London to protect it from damage.

It took thousands of hours to remove enough of the hard limestone rock around the fossil so it could be studied.

After using acid to dissolve the rock and then scanning the sample, scientists have now published their classification of the fossil.

“This group of more advanced flying reptiles flourished earlier than we initially thought,” says Dr. Barrett.

The creature is from the Darwinoptera branch of pterosaurs. The research shows that the group lived for more than 25 million years, from the late Early Jurassic to the Late Jurassic, explains Dr. Martin Silverstone.

The results were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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