New species of Jurassic pterosaur discovered on the Isle of Skye

An artist's impression of Ceoptera. © NHM & Witton

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

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.

The rarity of Middle Jurassic pterosaur fossils and their incompleteness has 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 realised. 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.

Skeleton of the new pterosaur Ceoptera evansae from the Middle Jurassic of the Isle of Skye (Credit Trustees of the Natural History Museum London)

Dr David Unwin, a co-author on the paper from the University of Leicester School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, said: "The new find, a partial skeleton of a pterosaur (flying reptile), is incredibly exciting because fossils like this are extremely rare from the middle part of the Jurassic. 

“Even though most of the fossil is still buried in the rock we were able to 'see' the skeleton using x-ray scanning and 3D digital models - an amazing new way for us to do palaeontology. 

“This new crow-sized pterosaur, called Ceoptera, helped us to recognise a rather mysterious group of pterosaurs, called Darwinopterans. It turns out that Darwinopterans were much more numerous and important than we thought, dominating the skies for much of the Jurassic."

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.”

Prof. Barrett and his colleagues described the new species, naming it Ceoptera evansaeCeoptera 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 honours 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."