A group of paleontologists discovered a large, well-preserved pterosaur on a rocky beach off the coast of Scotland. Boasting roughly an 8-foot wingspan, the ancient reptile is the largest of its kind to be found from the Jurassic Period.
The species is called Dearc sgiathanach (pronounced jark ski-an-ach; I wouldn’t have guessed it either), which translates as ‘winged reptile’ from Gaelic. It lived about 170 million years ago, in the Middle Jurassic, and is the largest flying animal yet known from that far back in time.
The animal’s existence was a chance find made in 2017, when paleontologist Amelia Penney stumbled across the creature’s head while photographing dinosaur footprints on a rocky beach on the Isle of Skye. The pterosaur was promptly sawed out of the rock (with a couple pauses to deal with the tides, which threatened to wash away the fossil) and exhaustively studied; the results of the analysis were published this week in Current Biology.
“This is a superlative Scottish fossil,” said Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and a co-author of the paper, in a university press release. “The preservation is amazing, far beyond any pterosaur ever found in Scotland and probably the best British skeleton found since the days of Mary Anning in the early 1800s.”
Larger pterosaurs than Dearc sgiathanach have been found before; the biggest currently known is the North American Quetzalcoatlus, a 12-foot-tall behemoth with a 40-foot wingspan, making it the largest flying animal ever known. But Dearc sgiathanach comes from a particularly early period in pterosaur evolution, a time when most of the creatures were thought to have wingspans of less than 2 meters. Not only was the Scottish pterosaur’s wingspan around 2.5 meters, it was only about two years old when it died, indicating that adults of the species would have been even larger.
“It’s an excellent portrait” of pterosaur diversity in the Middle Jurassic, a time when pterosaurs “start moving from basal forms of Triassic to derived forms of Cretaceous,” said lead author Natalia Jagielska in a video call with Gizmodo. “[Dearc sgiathanach] fills a very important evolutionary gap that’s sadly very, very poorly represented.”
The team had to approximate the pterosaur’s wingspan, as the tides had washed away portions of the wings, as well as the top of the animal’s head and the end of its tail. Cutting the fossil out of the limestone probably saved the specimen from eroding completely.
This is just the latest piece placed in the jigsaw puzzle of pterosaur diversity. Last year, paleontologists announced the discovery of a Jurassic pterosaur in China that appeared to have an opposable thumb and another that looked like a porg from Star Wars. These animals thrived globally, from deserts to polar regions to seasides. “They were cosmopolitans,” said Jagielska, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh.
More paleontological surveys are being planned around Scotland. While plenty of footprints and partial fossils have been found there, the intactness of this latest specimen has given new hope to the deposits that lie in wait around the United Kingdom.