Triassic specimen found to be early relative of pterosaurs a century after its discovery

Life reconstruction of Scleromochlus taylori by Gabriel Ugueto. Credit: Gabriel Ugeuetto

A new study of a small Triassic fossil reptile first discovered in northeastern Scotland more than 100 years ago has revealed that it is a close relative of the species that would become pterosaurs – iconic flying reptiles from the era of the dinosaurs.

The research, published in Nature, was conducted by a team of scientists led by Dr. Davide Foffa, Research Associate at National Museums Scotland, and now a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. Working with colleagues at Virginia Tech, the team used computed tomography (CT) to create the first accurate reconstruction of the entire skeleton of Scleromochlus taylori.

The results reveal new anatomical details that conclusively identify it as a close relative of the pterosaur. It falls within a group known as Pterosauromorpha, consisting of an extinct group of reptiles called lagerpetids along with pterosaurs.

Lagerpetids, which lived about 240-210 million years ago, were a group of relatively small (cat- or small-dog-sized) active reptiles. Schleromochlus was even smaller at less than 20 centimeters in length. The results support the hypothesis that the first flying reptiles evolved from small, probably bipedal ancestors.

The finding settled a century-long debate. There had previously been disagreement as to whether the reptile, scleromochlus,

represented an evolutionary step toward pterosaurs, dinosaurs, or else some other reptilian offshoot.

The fossil of Scleromochlus is poorly preserved in a block of sandstone, making it difficult to study in sufficient detail to properly identify its anatomical features. The fossil belongs to a group known as the Elgin reptiles, consisting of Triassic and Permian specimens found in the sandstone of the Morayshire region of northeastern Scotland around the town of Elgin.

The specimens are mainly kept in the collections of National Museums Scotland, Elgin Museum and the Natural History Museum. The latter holds Scleromochlus, which was originally found in Lossiemouth.

dr. Foffa said: “It’s exciting to be able to resolve a debate that has been going on for over a century, but it’s much more amazing to see and understand an animal that lived 230 million years ago and its relationship “This is a new discovery that highlights Scotland’s important place in the global fossil record, as well as the importance of museum collections preserving such specimens, allowing us to use new techniques and technologies long after their discovery.”

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Professor Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum said: “The Elgin reptiles have not survived like the pristine, complete skeletons we often see in museum exhibits. They are mainly represented by natural forms of their bone in sandstone and – until quite recently -the only way to study them was to use wax or latex to fill these molds and make casts of the bones they once occupied.However, the use of CT scanning has revolutionized the study of these difficult specimens and has enabled us to produce much more detailed, accurate and useful reconstructions of these animals from our deep past.”

Professor Sterling Nesbitt of Virgina Tech said: “Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to develop powered flight and for nearly two centuries we did not know their closest relatives. Now we can begin to fill in their evolutionary history with the discovery of small close relatives that our knowledge of how they lived and where they came from”

In addition to the National Museums Scotland, the Natural History Museum and Virginia Tech, the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Sciences were also involved in the study.

Paleontologists find precursors to pterosaurs filling a gap in early evolutionary history

More information:
Davide Foffa, Scleromochlus and the early evolution of Pterosauromorpha, Nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05284-x

Provided by the University of Birmingham

Quote: Triassic specimen of which an early relative of pterosaurs has been found a century after its discovery (2022, October 5), retrieved October 5, 2022 from relative pterosaurs. html

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