News release

A new pterosaur from the Isle of Wight

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20 March 2013

Vectidraco daisymorrisae

Credit: Mark Witton, palaeoartist

Palaeontologists from the University of Southampton have made an exciting new discovery from the Isle of Wight – a completely new genus and species of small flying reptile, closely related to dinosaurs, called a ‘pterosaur’.

The pterosaur, which dates from 115 million years ago in the Lower Cretaceous, is currently known only from a well-preserved fossil pelvis, just 40 mm long, but that was enough for the researchers to work out that they were dealing with a new species. The discovery by University of Southampton researchers Dr Darren Naish, ‘fossil man’ Martin Simpson and Dr Gareth Dyke, who are based at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, is published in the high-profile international journal PLoS One.

The fossil was found in 2008 by Daisy Morris, who was five at the time. In recognition of her find and the generous donation of the fossil by the Morris family to the Natural History Museum, the species has been named Vectidraco daisymorrisae in her honour. The generic name Vectidraco means ‘dragon from the Isle of Wight’ while the species name honours Daisy.

Several features of the Vectidraco fossil allowed the palaeontologists to work out that the species most probably belongs to a group of pterodactyloids called the azhdarchoids. Vectidraco grouped close to the tapejarids (a group of relatively small, short-snouted azhdarchoids known from Brazil, Spain and China), and was probably tapejarid-like in shape and lifestyle.

Dr Naish says: “Azhdarchoids are, in my opinion, among the most interesting of pterosaurs. All are from the Cretaceous, all are toothless, and many (perhaps all) were especially well adapted for life in terrestrial environments like woodlands, tropical forests and floodplains. Bony head crests are a typical feature of the group, as are adaptations in the fore- and hindlimbs for quadrupedal walking. As well as tapejarids, the group includes the somewhat larger thalassodromids (famous for their sail-like head crests), and the sometimes gigantic, long-snouted azhdarchids.”

By comparing Vectidraco to azhdarchoids known from better remains, it probably had a wingspan of about 75 cm, and was about 35 cm from snout to tail. In other words, it was similar in size to a gull or a large crow. It was probably crested, and with limb proportions that allowed it to be a reasonably good walker and runner on the ground and an expert flier when in cluttered habitats like forests.

One of the palaeontologists, Martin Simpson, has now written a children's book entitled ‘Daisy and the Isle of Wight Dragon’, about Daisy and her fossil collecting escapades.

Martin says: “The story highlights the special relationship between amateurs, academics and curators, in bringing these important finds to the attention of the scientific world. It also shows that, continuing a long tradition in palaeontology, major discoveries can be made by amateurs, often by being in the right place at the right time.”

The University of Southampton is home to the UK’s largest and most productive vertebrate palaeontology research group working on fossils from the Isle of Wight and collecting new ones.

From 20 – 21 September, the University of Southampton will host a major international conference to celebrate the Isle of Wight and the uniqueness of the Island for dinosaurs and our global understanding of animal evolution at the dawn of the Cretaceous.