Fossil Coast warmly welcomes Natalia Jagielska as our guest blog contributor who shares her knowledge and expertise about Pterosaurs or "winged lizards" that lived from the late Triassic Period to the end of the Cretaceous Period when they became extinct along with dinosaurs.
Natalia is a Doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh, studying the evolution of large pterosaurs in the Jurassic, and is also a paleoartist (a person who reconstructs prehistoric animals). Recently, Natalia and her Team described a new species and holotype of pterosaur, called Dearc sgiathanach, the largest Jurassic pterosaur to be discovered yet.
Well-preserved pterosaur fossils are a rarity in the geological record. Their slender build, thier design for flying, and having a thin-boned skeleton makes them a suboptimal candidate for preservation. And yet, Britain is known for some globally-renowned and exquisite representatives of that interesting group of animals.
The First named pterosaur to come outside of Germany was unearthed in Britain, as far back as the 19th century.
That pterosaur is a uniquely fascinating Dimorphodon, recognised for its large boxy skull with enormous fenestrations (holes) in its big head.
Its name means two-tooth-types, referring to the big fangs it has at the front in the jaw and tiny pegs in the back.
A wonderfully preserved specimen was first unearthed from the Blue Lias of the Jurassic coast by Mary Anning, a working-class fossil hunter, and preparator.
Dimorphodon however is preserved flattened, in two dimensions. This is not true for other Jurassic pterosaurs unearthed in 1888, Parapsicephalus. We know Parapsicephalus from having a three-dimensional skull – coming with infilling of the endocast – or the “brain cavity”, surprisingly showing that pterosaur brains were considerably smaller and have a similar shape to those found in modern day birds.
The recently discovered Dearc, from the Jurassic limestones of Isle of Skye, makes remains of Parapsicephalus look pale in comparison.
The name Dearc sgiathanach is derived from Scottish Gaelic language and can be simultaneously translated as "winged reptile" and "reptile from Skye".
The pterosaur represents one of the largest Jurassic flying animals, with a wingspan bigger than two meters. Its entire body is preserved in three dimensions and in a resting position.
Given the size of the animal, the scientists assumed it was already an adult at the time of death, but slicing one of its bones open it showcased a fast-growing bone structure we usually associate with juveniles.
This pterosaur dons an enormous skull, with intertwined teeth on round jaws. Its peculiar zig-zag teeth posed a lot of questions regarding its diet. Studying the microwear of the teeth, we can get a glimpse of its last meal – probably being a carnivore with a hefty bite.
More partial material was recovered, from between Kimmeridge to Oxfordshire, but usually reserved for individual, crushed or disarticulated bones – most times, too incomplete to assign a species to.
Nevertheless, the small portion of amazingly preserved fossils in British isles answers many pterosaur questions – and nudges us to do more exploration with the aim of finding another question-answering exquisite specimen.