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Scientists find 95-million-year-old pterosaur fossil in Morocco

PLOS

With the help of ancient fossils unearthed in the Sahara desert, scientists have identified a new type of pterosaur (giant flying reptile or pterodactyl) that existed about 95 million years ago. According to the findings published in the online peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS ONE on May 26th, the scientists consider the newly identified pterosaur to be the earliest example of its kind.

Unearthed in three separate pieces, the jaw bone has a total length of 344mm (13.5 inches). Each piece is well preserved, uncrushed, and unlike most other pterosaur fossils, retains its original three dimension shape.

"This pterosaur is distinguished from all others by its lance-shaped lower jaw which had no teeth and looked rather like the beak of a heron," says Nizar Ibrahim, a PhD research scholar from University College Dublin, Ireland, who led the expedition. "During the excavation, we also discovered a partial neck vertebra that probably belonged to the same animal, inferring a wing span of about six metres."

The scientists have named the new pterosaur Alanqa saharicafrom the Arabic word 'Al Anqa' meaning Phoenix, a mythological flying creature that dies in a fire and is reborn from the ashes of that fire. On the same expedition, and in the same region as where the fossils of Alanqa saharica were uncovered, the scientists also discovered fossils of two other previously identified types of pterosaur. This suggests that several types of pterosaurs lived alongside one another in the same region at the time, each probably specializing in a different ecological niche.

"When this pterosaur was alive, the Sahara desert was a river bed basin lush with tropical plant and animal life," explains Ibrahim. "This means there were lots of opportunities for different pterosaurs to co-exist, and perhaps feeding on quite different kinds of prey."

Pterosaur bones are seldom preserved in the fossil record because they were light and flimsy in order to be optimized for flight. Until now there have been few significant pterosaur fossil finds in Africa.

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Citation: Ibrahim N, Unwin DM, Martill DM, Baidder L, Zouhri S (2010) A New Pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Upper Cretaceous of Morocco. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10875. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010875

Funding: This research was supported by an Ad Astra Research Scholarship awarded to NI (http://www.ucd.ie/), financial support from the University of Portsmouth to DMM (http://www.port.ac.uk/), contributions from members of the December 2008 expedition to Morocco [Robert Loveridge, Richard Hing, Darren Naish] and a New Blood grant awarded to DMU by Leicester University (http://www.le.ac.uk/ms/contactus/davidunwin.html). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Contact: Dominic Martella,
Media Relations,
University College Dublin, Ireland
T: +353 +1 716 1681
M: +353 +87 2959 118

Images available:
Artist's impression of Alanqa saharica by Davide Bonadonna. The newly identified pterosaur lived 95 million years ago in the Kem Kem region of the Sahara, on the border of present day Morocco and Algeria.
Nizar Ibrahim, the University College Dublin PhD research scholar who led the expedition, pictured with the jaw bone fragments of Alanqa saharica

Scientist available for interview: Nizar Ibrahim, a PhD research scholar in the UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, University College Dublin, Ireland, who led the expedition when the fossils were unearthed, and is the lead author of the scientific paper, is available for interview on request.

PLEASE LINK TO THE SCIENTIFIC ARTICLE IN ONLINE VERSIONS OF YOUR REPORT (URL goes live after the embargo ends): http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010875

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