The tip of an ancient beak poking out from coastal rock on the Isle of Skye was the only clue to a fossil discovery which is now being described as among the most extraordinary in the UK for two centuries.
Amelia Penny, an Edinburgh University PhD student, spotted the unusual stone during a National Geographic-funded expedition on the island in 2017.
After her fellow palaeontologists took diamond-tipped saws to the rock and started slicing down, they realised what they were looking at was the enormous complete skeleton of a pterosaur – a winged creature which died around that very spot 160 million years ago.
A new paper has now been published on the find, describing it as the best-preserved pterosaur skeleton to be found in Scotland and the largest from the Jurassic period to be discovered anywhere in the world.
The species has been given the Gaelic name Dearc sgiathanach, which translates to ‘winged reptile’ and pays tribute to Skye‘s Gaelic name of An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, meaning ‘winged isle’.
‘As if he were alive mere weeks ago’
Edinburgh University PhD student Natalia Jagielska, who is the lead author on the newly published Current Biology paper, said: “Dearc is a fantastic example of why palaeontology will never cease to be astounding.
“Pterosaurs preserved in such quality are exceedingly rare and are usually reserved to select rock formations in Brazil and China.
“And yet, an enormous superbly preserved pterosaur emerged from a tidal platform in Scotland.”
She added: “To achieve flight, pterosaurs had hollow bones with thin bone walls, making their remains incredibly fragile and unfit to preserving for millions of years.
“And yet our skeleton, 160 million years on since its death, remains in almost pristine condition, articulated and almost complete.
“Its sharp fish-snatching teeth still retaining a shiny enamel cover as if he were alive mere weeks ago.”
Professor Steve Brusatte, personal chairman of palaeontology and evolution at Edinburgh University’s School of GeoSciences, described it as “a superlative Scottish fossil”.
He said: “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.”
Sent to museum
The unique specimen is now going to be added to the collection of National Museums Scotland, where it will be studied further to find out more about how it lived and flew.
Dr Nick Fraser, keeper of natural sciences at National Museums Scotland, said: “Even in the context of the amazing palaeontological finds on Skye in recent years, this one really is remarkable.
“To find and describe a specimen which is both so well-preserved and so significant is really special and we’re delighted to add Dearc into our collection, a unique addition to the fossil record and a specimen which will be studied now and long into the future.”