Rare reptile causing stir among experts

Vice-Chancellor Professor Graham Galbraith
. Picture by Helen Yates

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A TINY pterosaur from the age of flying giants is causing a flap among Portsmouth experts.

The rare reptile, with a wingspan of 1.5 metres, would have been dwarfed by its cousins from the Late Cretaceous era 77 million years ago.

Some of them were much larger, with wingspans of up to 11 metres (36 feet), making them the size of a small plane.

But what the new specimen, thought to belong to the azhdarchoid pterosaur family, lacks in size it makes up for in terms of scientific importance.

Fossil fragments from the pterosaur were found on Hornby Island, British Columbia, in 2009. A detailed study of the fossils has only now been published in the Royal Society journal Open Science.

Pterosaurs – which were not flying dinosaurs – were the earliest vertebrates to develop powered flight, pre-dating birds by millions of years.

Co-author Dr Mark Witton, a pterosaur expert from the University of Portsmouth, said: ‘The specimen is far from the prettiest or most complete pterosaur fossil you’ll ever see, but it’s still an exciting and significant find.

‘It’s rare to find pterosaur fossils at all because their skeletons were lightweight and easily damaged once they died, and the small ones are the rarest of all. But luck was on our side and several bones of this animal survived the preservation process.

‘Happily, enough of the specimen was recovered to determine the approximate age of the pterosaur at the time of its death. By examining its internal bone structure and the fusion of its vertebrae we could see that, despite its small size, the animal was almost fully grown.

‘The specimen thus seems to be a genuinely small species, and not just a baby or juvenile of a larger pterosaur type.’