Amateur paleontologist Luke Harrington was enjoying a relaxing stroll along Lavernock beach near the Bristol Channel in September 2023 when he spotted something extraordinary – the fossils of an ancient flying reptile. The remains of the 200 million-year-old creature had been exposed by recent storms and were spotted by the eagle-eyed university student.
Chance Discovery Leads to ‘Find of a Lifetime’
Harrington, a Ph.D. candidate in paleontology at the University of Bath, immediately realized the significance of his chance find. He quickly contacted experts at the nearby Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution to confirm that he had stumbled across the extremely rare fossilized skeleton of a pterosaur – a flying reptile that soared over the heads of dinosaurs in the Jurassic period.
“I was absolutely thrilled to have made such an unexpected discovery,” said an excited Harrington. “I have been fascinated by fossils and prehistoric creatures since childhood, so to uncover the near-complete skeleton of a pterosaur on a local beach is the find of a lifetime.”
Paleontologists have dubbed the new species Linlongopterus jennyae after Harrington’s mother Jenny. With an estimated 3-meter wingspan, the reptile had a long neck, sharp teeth, and likely fed mainly on fish.
“It’s phenomenal to think that this ancient creature once flew over this exact spot over 200 million years ago,” remarked Harrington. “It really brings home how Somerset was once located in a more tropical climate close to the Jurassic coast.”
Rare Glimpse Into the Dawn of Pterosaur Evolution
According to paleontologists, the new fossil dates back to the Triassic-Jurassic boundary at around 200-210 million years ago. This makes Linlongopterus one of the earliest and most primitive pterosaurs ever found in Britain. The majority of pterosaur fossils found so far are 100 million years younger.
“This is a highly significant discovery that gives us a rare glimpse into the origin and early evolution of pterosaurs,” said Dr. Daniel Pemberton, the lead paleontologist studying the remains.
“The Triassic-Jurassic transition marked an evolutionary explosion of different reptile species and this creature would have been one of the first wave of pterosaurs emerging alongside dinosaurs in the early Jurassic.”
|* Scientific name: Linlongopterus jennyae
|* Wingspan estimate: 3 meters
|* Likely diet: fish
|* Geological period: Early Jurassic (~200 million years ago)
|* Location found: Lavernock beach near Bristol, UK
|* Discoverer: Amateur paleontologist Luke Harrington
Initial analysis suggests L. jennyae was an early long-tailed pterosaur that likely lived primarily along coastlines and inland waterways. It used its wings to fly between breeding and feeding grounds.
“Every new pterosaur discovery adds another precious piece to the evolutionary jigsaw,” added Dr. Pemberton. This latest fossil helps clarify the transition from small gliding reptiles to winged dynamos that went on to fill both aquatic and aerial niches for 150 million years.
Plans Underway to Carefully Unearth and Preserve Rare Remains
Since the initial identification of the fossils, teams of paleontologists have worked carefully to excavate and record the position of each bone at the Lavernock site. Experts will now embark on the delicate task of fully extracting the remains to transport them to specialist laboratories for preparation and further study.
Great care is being taken not to lose any small bones or damage the fragile fossils during transit. Scientists expect the preparation and analysis phase to take upwards of 12 months. This will involve removing rock from the bones and studying them in fine detail.
Once research on the one-of-a-kind skeleton is complete, the plan is for the new flying reptile to form a centerpiece exhibit at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution by early 2025.
“Not only is this the most intact British pterosaur ever found, but it also represents the beginning of a brand new chapter in the study of these fantastic creatures,” said Dr. Pemberton.
“We plan an in-depth scientific description of L. jennyae encompassing anatomy, ecology and evolution to better understand its place in the pterosaur family tree. This will be published in 2025 alongside the museum exhibit launch so the public can come face-to-face with this remarkable Jurassic flyer.”
Chance Discovery Highlights Promise of Future Finds Along England’s Fossil Coasts
The unexpected discovery has highlighted the wealth of archaeological treasures that may still lie hidden along Britain’s eroding coastlines. It has also underscored the vital role amateurs can play in bringing major finds to scientific attention.
The rocky beaches of southern England are renowned worldwide for their continuous exposure of new fossils from key geological periods. While majority of finds tend to be smaller specimens like ammonites or isolated bones, Harrington’s serendipitous discovery has ignited hopes more complete skeletons await discovery.
“The UK has incredibly rich Mesozoic fossil deposits which provide an unrivaled record of evolution through the age of dinosaurs and beyond,” stated Dr Pemberton. “As natural erosion processes expose new layers of ancient sediments, there is huge scope for members of the public to uncover rare fossils like Mr Harrington here.”
In recent decades, amateur fossil hunters have been behind many pivotal pterosaur finds in the UK stretching back over 160 million years. Striking discoveries include bones of giant ctenochasmatids, toothy ornithocheirids, and dimorphodontids – but most have been isolated fragments or single bones.
The new Linlongopterus fossil is the first major association of multiple bones from a single Triassic pterosaur individual. Paleontologists are hopeful further such finds will help illuminate the earliest phases of pterosaur evolution as they transitioned to life in the skies.
“We urge people to keep their eyes peeled along the shoreline” stated Pemberton. “This discovery highlights the untapped potential still awaiting along England’s World Heritage ‘Jurassic Coast’ and beyond. We greatly value involvement from responsible amateur collectors and any significant finds should immediately be reported to facilitate rapid scientific study.”
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