In 2008 five-year-old Daisy Morris found what looked like tiny black sticks or rocks poking out of the mud while on a walk with her family along the beach on the Isle of Wight, in the United Kingdom.
It was only later that her family began to suspect the importance of her discovery and took the small lump of bones to a paleontologist at South Hampton University, Martin Simpson. Simpson soon recognized the fossil was the first piece of a never-before-discovered species of ancient reptile.
The tiny bits of black fossil were actually the pelvic bones of a small azhdarchoid (a family of ancient flying reptiles) that lived 115 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous period. From these fossils, Simpson and his colleagues from the university, Darren Naish and Garreth Dyke, named the specimen Vectidraco daisymorrisae, detailing their study in the journal PLoS ONE. The genus name means “Dragon from the Isle of Wight,” a place known to many as the dinosaur capital of Great Britain; the species name pays homage to its young discoverer.
Members of the Azhdarchidae family have been found all over the world including China, Brazil, and Europe. The biggest flying creature ever to live was an azhdarchid, called Quetzalcoatlus northropi, and had a wingspan of more than 30 feet. Vectidraco’s fossils, however, indicated a much smaller dinosaur.
Naish, Simpson, and Dyke compared the fossils with those of other, similar azhdarchids that had more complete fossils and known wingespans. They concluded in that the fossils found along the beach probably belonged to a reptile similar in size to seagull. Vectidraco’s wingspan was about 30 inches. It’s body was only 14 inches long from head to tail. It probably had a long, toothless, stork-like bill and a thin frill over its skull. It would have had a long thin neck and wings that folded up along its sides, allowing it to walk with its front and back limbs.Vectidraco probably had the ability to walk and run aptly along the ground and to fly nimbly through cramped, tree-filled spaces.
The discovery of the new species also indicates that the diversity in England during the late Cretaceous was even richer than previously thought, with types of small flying reptiles living alongside the more familiar lumbering dinosaur giants. Because of England’s watery climate, these smaller more delicate fossils may be more difficult to recover if they survive at all.
Read the study on Vectidraco in the journal PLoS ONE.