‘Discovery of the century’ pterodactyl fossil on show at museum

The fossil shows the huge flying reptile would have had an estimated wingspan of more than 2.5 metres.

University of Edinburgh PhD student Natalia Jagielska with what has been hailed as the world’s largest Jurassic pterosaur fossil (Stewart Attwood/PA)
University of Edinburgh PhD student Natalia Jagielska with what has been hailed as the world’s largest Jurassic pterosaur fossil (Stewart Attwood/PA)

A pterodactyl fossil dating back more than 170 million years which has been described as the “discovery of the century” has been unveiled at the National Museum of Scotland.

The prehistoric specimen has been hailed as the best-preserved skeleton of a pterosaur – a huge flying reptile – and the largest ever discovered from the Jurassic period.

The giant winged creature, more popularly known as pterodactyls, is closely related to dinosaurs and had an estimated wingspan of more than 2.5 metres, similar to that of an albatross today.

The fossil, which was found during a National Geographic Society-funded excavation on the Isle of Skye in 2017, will now be added to the museum’s collection, where it was unveiled on Tuesday.

It's a discovery of the century, this doesn't really happen

University of Edinburgh PhD student Natalia Jagielska

Speaking about the ground-breaking discovery, University of Edinburgh PhD student Natalia Jagielska, who was lead author in a new paper featuring the fossil, described the finding as “a discovery of the century”.

Posing proudly with it for photos, Ms Jagielska said: “The finding has pieced together a huge gap in fossil records for us.

“I am glad that the world is going to see one of the best pterosaurs that has been discovered in centuries.

“Britain hasn’t seen this kind of preservation of pterosaurs in 200 years.

“It’s a discovery of the century, this doesn’t really happen.”

The palaeontology expert said the last time such findings were made was during the days of Mary Anning – a palaeontologist celebrated for her discoveries of Jurassic fossils – in the early 1800s.

Holding a much smaller stuffed toy version of the reptile on her shoulder, Ms Jagielska said the fossil shows that the pterosaur was “much bigger and more diverse than we expected during the Jurassic period.”

“They were also very goofy looking creatures,” she laughed.

“The discovery is also super interesting because this fossil shows there was clearly a lot of evolution going on in that time period.

“And it shows that Scotland is a key piece to discovering that evolutionary variation, the best place in the world, it might be.

“If these delicate bones of the pterosaur can be preserved well, that means other creatures can, and if other creatures can, we might fill the gap in records of the Jurassic period just in Scotland alone.”

Professor Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist and professor at the University of Edinburgh, explained how the “superlative” fossil was found on the trip which he led about five years ago.

“It was a very stressful excavation as we were battling the tides to cut this thing out the rock with diamond-tipped saws,” he said.

“We actually lost if for a moment as the waves lapped up over it and we had to come back near midnight to get the most of it out.”

He said the fossil, with bones “feather light” and “as thin as sheets of paper”, took several days to cut from rock.

Running his hand over part of the reptile’s jaw found in the historic specimen, Prof Brusatte described the discovery as “the best thing we’ve found on Skye”.

“I have been bringing my teams to Skye from Edinburgh for about a decade now, but this one takes the prize.

“This is a crown jewel fossil and is a beautiful, exquisite skeleton.

“The thing about working on Skye is we are always battling the tides, so it’s a very challenging place to work.

“But when you find something like this, it’s so worth it.”

Amelia Penny, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews, was the one who first discovered the fossil during Prof Brusatte’s field trip after spotting its jaw protruding from limestone at Rubha nam Brathairean (known as Brothers’ Point).

“I knew I had found something interesting,” Ms Penny said, recounting the jaw-dropping moment.

“There were other teams on the beach with me that day and they said: ‘We think this could be a pterosaur skull, we think this could be really significant’.”

Speaking at the fossil’s unveiling on Tuesday, Ms Penny said: “I feel proud to have spotted it.

“I also need to be humble about it, there was an element of chance with me finding it.

“But I feel very proud, I feel very lucky.”

The unique fossil will now be added to National Museums Scotland’s collection and studied further.

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