Fossil Friday: ancient shark bones turn out to be the teeth of a new species of flying dinosaur

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have made a lucky discovery in the collections of the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum at Brighton: a new species of pterosaur.

The fossils as seen from different angles. Scale bar represents 10 mm. Image credits Author links open overlay Roy E. Smith et al., (2020), Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

The fossils have been part of these collections for almost 100 years now, being first uncovered between 1851 and 1900. They were found at the height of phosphate mining activity in the English Fens area. As was regularly the practice among workmen there at the time, they quietly sold any fossils they found to collectors for some extra money.

Before we judge them too harshly, it pays to keep in mind that they had a direct hand to play in the discovery of a new species, even if unwittingly. Since their discovery, the fossils were assumed to have belonged to a species of shark. However, the work of University of Portsmouth Ph.D. student Roy Smith revealed that, in fact, they belonged to a new species of pterosaur.


Smith was examining (what we believed to be) the shark fin spines found in the fens when he noticed that they weren’t spines at all. They definitely looked the part, at least superficially, but there were also some details that didn’t fit the bill. Unfortunately, they were just teeth (connected to a bit of beak), so we don’t have enough material to describe the species it belonged to.

“One such feature are tiny little holes where nerves come to the surface and are used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs. Shark fin spines do not have these, but the early paleontologists clearly missed these features,” he explains. “Two of the specimens discovered can be identified as a pterosaur called Ornithostoma, but one additional specimen is clearly distinct and represents a new species. It is a palaeontological mystery.”

“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. But I’m hopeful that other museum collections may contain more examples, and as soon as the Covid restrictions are lifted I will continue my search.”

Smith’s supervisor, Professor Dave Martill, explains that the material we do have “simply differs from Ornithostoma [a pterodactyl lineage] in subtle ways”, similarly to how “a great white egret might differ from a heron”. He adds that it’s unlikely that the animal had a significantly different body structure to other pterodactyls, but that it likely diverged most in areas such as “color, call, and behavior than in the skeleton”. Still, he describes the findings as “tantalizing”.

“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”, he adds. “This is extremely exciting to have discovered this mystery pterosaur right here in the UK.”

Part of the significance of the work is finding hints of a new species, the two researchers say. But they’re also valuable in showcasing how re-examining dusty museum collections for old material we assume was already identified can help us make whole new discoveries.

The paper “Edentulous pterosaurs from the Cambridge Greensand (Cretaceous) of eastern England with a review of Ornithostoma Seeley, 1871” has been published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

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