Jurassic Breakthrough: New Species of Pterosaur Discovered on the Isle of Skye Rewrites Evolutionary History

Ceoptera evansae Reconstruction

Reconstruction of Ceoptera evansae. Credit: © NHM & Witton 2021

Scientists unveil a new pterosaur species from Scotland, offering insights into the diversity and global spread of early flying reptiles and challenging established views on their evolutionary timeline.

A new species of pterosaur from specimens found on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, has been announced by scientists from the Natural History Museum, University of Bristol, University of Leicester, and University of Liverpool.

Insights Into Pterosaur Diversity and Evolution

The new pterosaur is part of the Darwinoptera clade of pterosaurs. Its discovery shows that the clade was considerably more diverse than previously thought, and persisted for more than 25 million years, from the late Early Jurassic to the latest Jurassic. During this period species within the clade spread worldwide.

The discovery underpins a new and more complex model for the early evolution of pterosaurs.

Ceoptera evansae Skeleton

Close up on part of the skeleton of Ceoptera evansae showing the shoulder region, parts of the wing and vertebrae. Credit: Trustees of Natural History Museum

Challenges and Techniques in Pterosaur Research

The rarity of Middle Jurassic pterosaur fossils and their incompleteness have previously hampered attempts to understand early pterosaur evolution. This discovery shows that all principal Jurassic pterosaur clades evolved well before the end of the Early Jurassic, earlier than previously realized. The discovery also shows that pterosaurs persisted into the latest Jurassic, alongside avialans, the dinosaurs which eventually evolved into modern birds.

The remains consist of a partial skeleton of a single individual, including parts of the shoulders, wings, legs, and backbone. Many of the bones remain completely embedded in rock and can only be studied using CT scanning.

Ceoptera evansae Skeleton Models

3D models of Ceoptera evansae skeleton. Credit: Natural History Museum

Professor Paul Barrett, Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum and senior author on the paper, said: “Ceoptera helps to narrow down the timing of several major events in the evolution of flying reptiles. Its appearance in the Middle Jurassic of the UK was a complete surprise, as most of its close relatives are from China. It shows that the advanced group of flying reptiles to which it belongs appeared earlier than we thought and quickly gained an almost worldwide distribution.”

Naming and Significance

Prof. Barrett and his colleagues described the new species, naming it Ceoptera evansae: Ceoptera from the Scottish Gaelic word Cheò, meaning mist (a reference to the common Gaelic name for the Isle of Skye Eilean a’ Cheò, or Isle of Mist), and the Latin -ptera, meaning wing. Evansae honors Professor Susan E. Evans, for her years of anatomical and palaeontological research, in particular on the Isle of Skye.

Lead author Dr. Liz Martin-Silverstone, a palaeobiologist from the University of Bristol, said: “The time period that Ceoptera is from is one of the most important periods of pterosaur evolution, and is also one in which we have some of the fewest specimens, indicating its significance. To find that there were more bones embedded within the rock, some of which were integral in identifying what kind of pterosaur Ceoptera is, made this an even better find than initially thought. It brings us one step closer to understanding where and when the more advanced pterosaurs evolved.”

Reference “A new pterosaur from the Middle Jurassic of Skye, Scotland and the early diversification of flying reptiles” by Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone, David M. Unwin, Andrew R. Cuff, Emily E. Brown, Lu Allington-Jones and Paul M. Barrett, 5 February 2024, is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2023.2298741

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