Massive Pterosaur Fossil Unearthed in Oxfordshire, UK

Pterodactylus kochi

A newly found Jurassic pterosaur fossil in Oxfordshire features an over three-meter wingspan, making it one of the largest known from the period. Identified as a ctenochasmatoid, this discovery highlights unexpected large sizes in early pterosaurs, shifting perceptions of their evolutionary scale. (Pterodactylus kochi.) Credit: Dino Frey

Paleontologists have discovered a massive Jurassic pterosaur in Oxfordshire, with an estimated wingspan of over three meters, making it one of the largest of its kind from that era.

The fossil, found in a gravel pit, includes a well-preserved wing bone and has been identified as an adult ctenochasmatoid, known for its elongated features. This find suggests that some Jurassic pterosaurs were significantly larger than previously believed, challenging current understandings of their size evolution.

Pterodactylus kochi Wing Bone

The fossil was broken into three pieces but still well-preserved. Credit: University of Portsmouth

Discovery of a Massive Jurassic Pterosaur

A team of paleontologists has discovered a fossil of a gigantic flying reptile from the Jurassic period. It has an estimated wingspan of more than three meters (10 feet) — making it one of the largest pterosaurs ever found from that era.

Excavated from a gravel pit near Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, the fossil includes part of the pterosaur’s wing bone, which was broken into three pieces but still well-preserved.

Jurassic Pterosaur Artwork

Artwork of a Jurassic pterosaur. Credit: University of Portsmouth student, Hamzah Imran

Analysis and Identification

Experts from the universities of Portsmouth and Leicester have published a paper on the specimen, which was topographically scanned and identified as belonging to an adult ctenochasmatoid; a group of pterosaurs known for their long, slender wings, long jaws and fine bristle-like teeth.

Professor David Martill from the University of Portsmouth said: “When the bone was discovered, it was certainly notable for its size. We carried out a numerical analysis and came up with a maximum wingspan of 3.75 meters (12.3 feet). Although this would be small for a Cretaceous pterosaur, it’s absolutely huge for a Jurassic one!

“This fossil is also particularly special because it is one of the first records of this type of pterosaur from the Jurassic period in the United Kingdom.”

Large Jurassic Pterosaur Wingspan Comparison

Outlines of large Jurassic pterosaur wingspans. Credit: University of Portsmouth

Implications for Jurassic Pterosaur Size

Pterosaurs from the Triassic and Jurassic periods typically had wingspans between one and a half and two meters, so were generally smaller than their later relatives from the Cretaceous period, which could have wingspans of up to 10 meters. However, this new discovery suggests that some Jurassic pterosaurs could grow much larger.

Professor Martill added: “This specimen is now one of the largest known pterosaurs from the Jurassic period worldwide, surpassed only by a specimen in Switzerland with an estimated wingspan of up to five meters.”

David Martill

Professor of Palaeobiology, David Martill. Credit: University of Portsmouth

The Discovery Process and Its Significance

Geologist, Dr. James Etienne, discovered the specimen while hunting for fossil marine reptiles in June 2022 when the Late Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation was temporarily exposed in the floor of a quarry. This revealed a number of specimens including bones from ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs and other ancient sea creatures including ammonites and bivalves, marine crocodiles, and sharks.

Dr. Dave Unwin, from the University of Leicester, said: “Abfab, our nickname for the Abingdon pterosaur, shows that pterodactyloids, advanced pterosaurs that completely dominated the Cretaceous, achieved spectacularly large sizes almost immediately after they first appeared in the Middle Jurassic right about the time the dinosaurian ancestors of birds were taking to the air.”

The paper is published in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association and the fossil is now housed in the Etches Collection in Kimmeridge, Dorset.

Reference: “A ‘giant’ pterodactyloid pterosaur from the British Jurassic” by James L. Etienne, Roy E. Smith, David M. Unwin, Robert S.H. Smyth and David M. Martill, 24 May 2024, Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.
DOI: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2024.05.002

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