A new pterosaur from the UK

An image of Vectidraco showing what bones were found. (Wikimedia, Darren Naish mail, Martin Simpson, Gareth Dyke(

An image of Vectidraco showing what bones were found. (Wikimedia, Darren Naish mail, Martin Simpson, Gareth Dyke)

A new pterosaur has been found from the Isle of Wight in the south of England. Its name is Vectidraco daisymorrisae which means daisy morris’ dragon of the Isle of Wight.

Daisy Morris is a nine-year-old girl who found the bones five years ago when on a walk with her family.

Palaenotlogists from the University of Southampton realised that it was something different and spent the next five years studying the bones. Finally they decided that they belonged to a new species.

Vectidraco daisymorrisae was a small animal in a world of giants. The fossil was a adult when it died but its wingspan was only about 75cm, about the size of a crow.

There is a lot unknown about Vectidraco as only a few bits of its skeleton was found, including its pelvis and a few vertebrae.

It lived 125 million years ago when England was a chain of tropical islands.

What is a species?

Drawing of some dog breeds.

Drawing of some dog breeds.

A species is a group of animals that all look similar and can have babies with any other member of that species. Humans are a species called Homo sapiens. We are one species because we all look very similar and can have children with each other.

But the members of a species can look very different from each other. Dogs are all one species called Canis lupus. This species includes every dog breed, from great danes to poodles and even wolves.

Cats, on the other hand, are a different species to dogs because a cat cannot have a baby with a dog.

What is a fossil?

 

A dinosaur fossil (Mike Beauregard, Wikimedia

A dinosaur fossil (Mike Beauregard, Wikimedia)

A fossil is evidence of life from far back in the past. There are many types of fossil but the best known is bone. Bone is hard and strong and is often the only part of an animal to survive years after an animal has died. If those bones are buried, there is a chance that someone may find it millions of years later.

Other types of fossil include shells of sea animals like sea snails or oysters and clams. Plants can also be preserved and, occasionally, soft tissue like muscles, but these are very rare.

What is an ichthyosaur?

 

Ichthyosaur skeleton in a German museum

An ichthyosaur skeleton in a German museum

An ichthyosaur looks like a fish or maybe a dolphin, but it was actually a reptile. It lived in the Mesozoic seas while dinosaurs were walking on the land. They are not dinosaurs but they are so unlike any other reptile that palaeontologists aren’t sure what they are closely related to.

Ichthyosaurs went extinct about 90 million years ago so, unlike pterosaurs or non-bird dinosaurs, they didn’t become extinct because of a large meteor. Instead, palaeontologists think they wentextinct because newly evolved species of fish were faster and harder to catch. Other marine reptiles were more adaptable and replaced them in the late Mesozoic seas before the meteor hit.

Ichthyosaurs had fins instead of legs that they used for swimming. On their back they had a dorsal fin like those on many fish, and their tails also had a large crescent (moon-shaped) fin. They lived in the sea and were incapable of returning to land.

Most reptiles lay eggs but eggs are permeable to water. This means that if an egg falls in water then the infant inside would drown. But ichthyosaurs lived in water and couldn’t get onto land so ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young, as mammals do. Some fossil ichthyosaurs have even been found with babies half way out of the body. Palaeontologists think these ichtyosaurs died while giving birth.

Ichthyosaurs could be really large. The largest so far found is about 23m long. They also had massive eyes. One species called Opthalmosaurus has the largest eyes for its body size of any animal that has ever existed.

Here is a video of an ichthyosaur from the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs series:

What is a pterosaur?

A Pterosaur skeleton (David Peters, Wikimedia)

A Pterosaur skeleton (David Peters, Wikimedia)

While the dinosaurs ruled the land, the pterosaurs ruled the sky. Pterosaurs are flying reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs during the Mesozoic period. They include the largest animals ever to fly, with some in the group being as large as a jet fighter and as tall as a giraffe.

Pterosaurs didn’t have feathers like birds but instead had a wing made of a membrane of thin skin. The wing was attached to the body and the arms and looks similar to a bat’s wing. But unlike a bats wing, a pterosaurs wing was supported by one very long finger that could be metres long (the finger is the same as our pinky finger).

Pterosaurs became extinct at the end of the Mesozoic period, 65 million years ago which freed the skies for bats and birds today.

Here is a video from the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs series:

What is a pliosaur?

The skull of a pliosaur (Greg Goebel, Wikimedia)

The skull of a pliosaur (Greg Goebel, Wikimedia)

Pliosaurs were big and vicious looking predators. They lived in the Mesozoic seas, and likely hunted almost anything that swam. They went extinct at the end of the Mesozoic.

Pliosaurs had very large fins instead of legs and had massive heads with rows of sharp teeth. They are quite rare fossils, and it’s usually only their skulls that are found.

One of the largest pliosaurs was found in England in Dorset. Only the skull was found, but it measured 2.4m long and palaeontologists estimate that the whole animal was about 15m. Click here for the BBC article on the find.

Here is a video from the BBC’s Planet Dinosaur about predator x, found in Dorset.

What is a dinosaur?

A triceratops in a museum (wikimedia)

A triceratops in a museum (wikimedia)

The name “dinosaur” means “terrible Lizard”. Englishman, Richard Owen was the man who created the name way back in 1842. The dinosaurs or Richard Owen’s world are much different from the ones we know now (look at picture below).

Two different models of Iguanodon. Top left is a modern reconstruction and bottom right is an 1854 reconstruction at Crystal Palace, London. (wikimedia sourced pictures, top: Marcus Ringer, bottom: FunkMunk)

Two different models of Iguanodon. Top left is a modern reconstruction and bottom right is an 1854 reconstruction at Crystal Palace, London. (wikimedia sourced pictures, top: Marcus Ringer, bottom: FunkMunk)

Dinosaurs were once thought of as slow cumbersome reptiles much like the komodo dragon. In the last few decades, palaeontologists have started to realise that dinosaurs were more complicated and more diverse than Owen could ever had imagined.

They lived from 248 to 65 million years ago, although most palaeontologists now believe birds are in fact modern dinosaurs. They could be huge with long necks and small heads or tiny with large brains and killer claws and teeth.

What makes a dinosaur a dinosaur?
Dinosaurs looked and act very differently to each other. Some were massive, and were over 30m long while others were the size of a chicken. Some ate meat, others ate fish and lots ate plants. Some dinosaurs walked on two legs and others walked on four. Some had very long necks while others had large horns. Some had powerful arms and claws while others had tiny arms and massive heads packed with large, sharp teeth.

But there are some things all dinosaurs had in common. Dinosaurs have an erect posture which means that their legs were straight and under the body, much like us. Most reptiles have sprawling legs, their legs come out from their sides and away from the body like any lizard or crocodile.

The two postures of reptiles.  left: sprawling posture of lizards and crocodiles. Right: erect posture of dinosaurs and mammals.

The two postures of reptiles. left: sprawling posture of lizards and crocodiles. Right: erect posture of dinosaurs and mammals.

Many animals lay eggs but dinosaurs laid eggs similar to birds and crocodiles. Their eggs are hard shelled. Other reptiles like snakes and lizards have soft shelled eggs as do fish and amphibians (and even a couple of mammals). The hard shells means that palaeontologists find the fossil remains of eggs which sometimes have baby dinosaurs still inside.

Birds are dinosaurs
Fossils show that dinosaurs had feathers like many birds and many of the first birds had teeth and clawed hands like in the famous Archaeopteryx. All the similarities between birds and dinosaurs mean that most palaeontologists now believe that birds are just modern dinosaurs.

There are over 9,000 species of birds alive today which is much more than the 5,000 mammals so maybe we are still in the age of dinosaurs after all.

What is the Mesozoic?

timeline

A diagram showing the different periods of the Mesozoic and when they started and finished.

The Mesozoic era is a length of time. It started 248 million years ago and ended 65 million years ago. This very long period of time is called an era.

The word ‘Mesozoic’ means middle animals and the types of animals were very different to what came before or after. The middle animals were dominated by dinosaurs, pterosaurs, pliosaurs, plesiosaurs and many other types of animals.

The Mesozoic is divided into three sections called periods:

  • The Triassic Period lasted from 248 to 208 million years ago
  • The Jurassic Period lasted from 208 to 146 million years ago
  • The Cretaceous Period lasted from 146 to 65 million years ago

Although the Mesozoic is often known as the age of dinosaurs, it wasn’t until the Jurassic that dinosaurs became the most common large animals. For most of the Triassic, they were small and uncommon.

Triassic

Each of the periods had different types of animals than the others. The Triassic is when dinosaurs and mammals are thought to have evolved, as did the pterosaurs and ichthyosaurs.

Jurassic

The Jurassic was the time of the long-necked, or sauropod, dinosaurs and is the time when birds are first seen.

Cretaceous

The Cretaceous has some of the most famous dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops but it is also when flowers and flowering plants first evolved. The Cretaceous is also when many of the big dinosaurs died out but dinosaurs live on now as birds.

65 million years ago, a meteor smashed into earth. The sky turned black from all the dust thrown into the sky and, as the dust came back down, it formed black lines. these black lines mark the end of the Cretaceous and the extinction of non-bird dinosaurs.

The End of the Mesozoic marked the beginning of the Cenozoic which is the era we are in now and is often called the age of mammals.