When 100-million-year-old fossils were discovered over a century ago, they were wrongly identified. New research has revealed that the bones belonged to two toothless pterosaurs as well as a newly discovered species.
The fossils were excavated in the Cambridge Greensand Member in England which is an ancient rock formation from the early part of Cenomanian period (approximately 100 million years ago). However, when the bones were found (somewhere between the years 1851 and 1900), miners sold any recovered fossils for extra cash.
The fossils did end up in the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum in Brighton. Upon further review, experts realized that they had been wrongly identified. In fact, when the jaw bones were first analyzed, they were misidentified as being shark fin spines.
Roy Smith, who is a vertebrate palaeontologist from the University of Portsmouth and an author of the paper, explained the differences between the pterosaur jaw fragments and shark fin spines. “One such feature are tiny little holes where nerves come to the surface and are used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs,” he said, adding, “Shark fin spines do not have these, but the early palaeontologists clearly missed these features.”
He went on to explain that two of the specimens belonged to a toothless pterosaur called Ornithostoma and that one specimen was a completely new species although very few bones were found. “Unfortunately, this specimen is too fragmentary to be the basis for naming the new species. Sadly, it is doubtful if any more remains of this pterosaur will be discovered, as there are no longer any exposures of the rock from which the fossils came, he said. (Pictures of the bones can be seen here.)
He is hopeful that perhaps other museums may have some bones belonging to the new species and he plans to search for them in the near future.
Dave Martill, who is a palaeobiologist from the University of Portsmouth and another author of the study, weighed in on the mysterious species. “The little bit of beak is tantalizing in that it is small, and simply differs from Ornithostoma in subtle ways, perhaps in the way that a great white egret might differ from a heron.” “Likely the differences in life would have been more to do with color, call and behavior than in the skeleton.” “Pterosaurs with these types of beaks are better known at the time period from North Africa, so it would be reasonable to assume a likeness to the North African Alanqa.”
Their study was published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association where it can be read in full.