'Shark spines' found in a mine 100 years ago are bits of pterosaur jaw

Fossil ‘shark spines’ unearthed in an English phosphate mine a century ago are actually jaw fragments of 100 million-year-old toothless pterosaurs — including an unknown species

  • The fossils were collected in the Fens by Victorian miners and sold for profit
  • They came from a rock formation that dates back to the early Cenomanian
  • The palaeontologists who originally studied the remains misclassified them
  • Researchers from the University of Portsmouth revisited the specimens 
  • They belong to both ‘Ornithostoma sedgwicki’ and another, new, species

A mystery species of toothless pterosaur has been identified among century-old fossil collections — where its jaw fragments had been mistaken for shark fin spines.  

Researchers from Portsmouth found the misclassified remains within both the the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum in Brighton.

The collections had been assembled during the peak of English phosphate mining in the Fens between 1851–1900, when miners sold fossils they found for extra money. 

The fossils were excavated from within the Cambridge Greensand Member — a rock formation that dates back to the early Cenomanian, around 100 million years ago. 

A mystery species of toothless pterosaur has been identified among century-old fossil collections — where its jaw fragments had been mistaken for shark fin spines. Pictured, the pterosaur jaw fragments (highlighted) among the collections of shark fin remains

Although the pterosaur jaw fragments do resemble shark fin spines, they sport many subtle differences that allow the two fossils to be distinguished from each other, the researchers explained. 

‘One such feature are tiny little holes where nerves come to the surface and are used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs,’ said paper author and vertebrate palaeontologist Roy Smith of the University of Portsmouth. 

‘Shark fin spines do not have these, but the early palaeontologists clearly missed these features,’ he added.

‘Two of the specimens discovered can be identified as a pterosaur called Ornithostoma, but one additional specimen is clearly distinct and represents a new species. It is a palaeontological mystery.’

‘Unfortunately, this specimen is too fragmentary to be the basis for naming the new species. Sadly, it is doubtful if any more remains of this pterosaur will be discovered, as there are no longer any exposures of the rock from which the fossils came.’

‘But I’m hopeful that other museum collections may contain more examples, and as soon as the COVID restrictions are lifted I will continue my search,’ Mr Smith added.

‘This is extremely exciting to have discovered this mystery pterosaur right here in the UK,’ said paper author and palaeobiologist Dave Martill, also of the University of Portsmouth. 

‘The little bit of beak is tantalising in that it is small, and simply differs from Ornithostoma in subtle ways, perhaps in the way that a great white egret might differ from a heron.’

‘Likely the differences in life would have been more to do with colour, call and behaviour than in the skeleton.’

‘Pterosaurs with these types of beaks are better known at the time period from North Africa, so it would be reasonable to assume a likeness to the North African Alanqa.’ 

‘Two of the specimens discovered can be identified as a pterosaur called Ornithostoma (pictured), but one additional specimen is clearly distinct and represents a new species. It is a palaeontological mystery,’ said palaeontologist Roy Smith of the University of Portsmouth.

‘This find is significant because it adds to our knowledge of these ancient and fascinating flying prehistoric reptiles,’ said paper author and palaeobiologist Dave Martill, also of the University of Portsmouth. He added that it ‘also demonstrates that such discoveries can be made, simply by re-examining material in old collections.’ Pictured, jaw fragments that the team identified as coming from a pterosaur named Ornithostoma sedgwicki

‘Pterosaurs with these types of beaks are better known at the time period from North Africa, so it would be reasonable to assume a likeness to the North African Alanqa (pictured),’ said paper author and palaeobiologist Dave Martill of the University of Portsmouth

‘This find is significant because it adds to our knowledge of these ancient and fascinating flying prehistoric reptiles,’ Professor Martill added.

He added that it ‘also demonstrates that such discoveries can be made, simply by re-examining material in old collections.’

The full findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.

Experts from Portsmouth found the misclassified remains within both the the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum in Brighton. The collections had been assembled during the peak of English phosphate mining in the Fens between 1851–1900, when miners sold fossils they found for extra money. The fossils were excavated from within the Cambridge Greensand Member — a rock formation that dates to some 100 million years ago

PTEROSAURS WERE FLYING REPTILES THAT LIVED IN THE JURASSIC AND CRETACEOUS

Neither birds nor bats, pterosaurs were reptiles who ruled the skies in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Scientists have long debated where pterosaurs fit on the evolutionary tree.

The leading theory today is that pterosaurs, dinosaurs, and crocodiles are closely related and belong to a group known as archosaurs, but this is still unconfirmed.

Neither birds nor bats, pterosaurs were reptiles who ruled the skies in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (artist’s impression pictured)

Pterosaurs evolved into dozens of species. Some were as large as an F-16 fighter jet, and others as small as a sparrow.

They were the first animals after insects to evolve powered flight – not just leaping or gliding, but flapping their wings to generate lift and travel through the air.

Pterosaurs had hollow bones, large brains with well-developed optic lobes, and several crests on their bones to which flight muscles attached. 

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