An exceptional fossil of a giant bird has been saved from the waters in Scotland

An exceptional fossil of a giant bird has been saved from the waters in Scotland

Thanks to the sharp eye of a Scottish doctoral student in paleontology, her team has found an exceptionally large pterosaur specimen.

In work published last week in the journal Current Biology and featured by the Smithsonian Magazine, researchers from the University of Edinburgh reported an incredible discovery: a very well-preserved skeleton belonging to a pterosaur of a size exceptional.

The story begins on the Scottish Isle of Skye, a veritable paleontological paradise where many remarkable specimens have already been identified. That day, a group of professors and students had gone to hunt for rare coins, and they were not disappointed; ‘Amelia Penny, a doctoral student in paleontology, finally spotted an unusual element during low tide.

From then on, the whole team set to work to extract this piece from its limestone yoke in order to preserve it. And the conditions were anything but optimal. Usually this is a long process; the objective is obviously to recover the part without damaging it. Anything but obvious when you have no idea what is hidden under the first layers of rock.

A race against the tide

But in this specific case, the team was pressed for time, or more precisely by the rising tide which was beginning to act up. So they worked quickly and cleared the fossil as quickly as possible. Well they took it, because this find turned out to be exceptional in many respects.

This approximately 170 million year old jaw actually hid a skeleton in a simply exceptional state of preservation. It belonged to a pterosaur, a close flying cousin of dinosaurs that domesticated this mode of locomotion nearly 50 million years before birds.

After the preliminary work, it appeared that this specimen baptized Dearc was a real juggernaut in its category. Technically, it’s not the largest pterosaur ever discovered. This title still goes to the legendary Quetzalcoatlus, a real titan whose wingspan of more than ten meters still makes it the largest flying animal to have ever lived on Earth.

In contrast, the Scottish specimen comes from a much earlier period. It dates from the beginning of pterosaur evolution, long before the appearance of Quetzalcoatlus. Fossils recovered until now suggested that pterosaurs born at this time were significantly smaller; the researchers considered that they did not exceed two meters in wingspan.

A specimen “really special

As such, Dearc sgiathanach is “exceptional” since the skeleton found displays a wingspan greater than 2.5 meters. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, this particular specimen was still very young; he was only two years old at the time of his death. This suggests that fully grown adults could still be significantly bigger ! A real paleontological jackpot that delighted the team.

Even against the backdrop of the impressive discoveries already made on the Isle of Skye in recent years, this one is truly remarkable.”, explains Dr. Nick Fraser, responsible for the account of the National Museums of Scotland. “The level of preservation is truly amazing”, adds Steve Brusatte, the professor who led the team behind the discovery.

The Dearc fossil therefore quickly became one of the most courted items in the Scottish collection. Its exceptional state of preservation will certainly allow researchers to collect important details on its anatomy and morphology. These details will in turn inform them about the animal’s way of life, and therefore about the whole dynamics of the ecosystem to which it belonged.

To find such a remarkable and well-preserved specimen like this is truly special.”, continues Fraser. “ It is a unique addition, and a specimen which will be studied for many years.”, he concludes.

The text of the study is available here.

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