Alanqa saharica: New Pterosaur Species Found Hiding in Plain Sight in Museum

Thursday, November 12, 2020

An artist’s impression of the azhdarchids pterosaur Alanqa saharica. Image credit: Davide Bonadonna.

A new re-examination of fossil material housed in the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum at Brighton has revealed the fossilized jaw fragments from a new Cretaceous period azhdarchid pterosaur previously identified as shark fin spines and fish jaws.

Roy Smith, a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth, made the discovery while he was examining the fish fossils collected from the West Melbury Marly Chalk Formation about a century ago.

The fossils were actually fragments of jaws of toothless pterosaurs, which do indeed resemble shark fin spines, but there are many subtle differences that allow them to be distinguished.

“One such feature is tiny little holes where nerves come to the surface and are used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs,” Smith said.

“Shark fin spines do not have these, but the early paleontologists clearly missed these features.”

Two of the specimens analyzed by Smith and his colleagues can be identified as a pterosaur called Ornithostoma sedgwicki, but one additional specimen is clearly distinct and represents a new species in the pterosaur clade Azhdarchoidea.

“Unfortunately, this specimen is too fragmentary to be the basis for naming the new species,” Smith said.

“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.”

“The little bit of beak is tantalizing 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,” said University of Portsmouth’s Professor Dave Martill, co-author of the study.

“Likely the differences in life would have been more to do with color, call and behavior 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.”

“This is extremely exciting to have discovered this mystery pterosaur right here in the UK.”

“This find is significant because it adds to our knowledge of these ancient and fascinating flying prehistoric reptiles, but also demonstrates that such discoveries can be made, simply by re-examining material in old collections.”

The study appears in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.


Roy E. Smith et al. Edentulous pterosaurs from the Cambridge Greensand (Cretaceous) of eastern England with a review of Ornithostoma Seeley, 1871. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, published online November 6, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.pgeola.2020.10.004