Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Torydactyl Of The Kimmeridge Clay

Pterosaurs were the only group of reptiles to truly take to the wing. Permian forms, such as Longisquama, may have had gliding capabilities but palaeontologists have yet to discover a pre-triassic vertebrate capable of powered flight. The pterosaurs were a diverse group with a rich evolutionary history lasting nearly 200 million years. They ranged in size from tiny Chinese forms, no larger than a robin, to flightless giants such as Hatzegopteryx.

Now a new species of flying reptile has been discovered. While all new species are important news, this particular specimen is significant for two main reasons. The first is that it was discovered in Britain, a country not well known for pterosaur diversity. The second is rather more amusing. The creature was given the nickname of torydactyl, as its rather pointy head is reminiscent of a caricature of the Tory MP and ex prime minister Margaret Thatcher by British, satirical artist, Gerald Scarfe.

Yet what is this new pterosaur? The specimen in question a single, well preserved, 33 centimetre long skull, was discovered in the Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay by amateur palaeontologist and fossil enthusiast Steve Etches. It was handed over to Dr David Martill from the University of Portsmouth who subsequently identified it as a new species and named it Cuspicephalus scarfi. 'It is also remarkable to find such a complete skull, allowing us to identify the species more easily' he stated.

The fossil skull, a virtual image of the
bones and the complete reconstruction
The species was named scarfi due to its resemblance to Scarfe's famous cartoon of Margaret Thatcher in the form of a rather vicious looking pterosaur with her pointed nose. 'I'm thrilled and flattered' said Mr Scarfe. 'I never thought Mrs Thatcher would do anything for me - even if it is to be immortalised as a 155-million-year-old fossil. I have spent many holidays in Kimmeridge and to think my namesake was buried beneath my feet is wonderfully bizarre.'

Dr Martill also believes that Cuspicephalus is important for its place in evolution.'We believe this discovery is significant because it seems to be filling a gap between primitive, small, long-tailed pterosaurs evolving into a more advanced short-tailed form.' The fossil is now on display in Dorset's Museum of Jurassic Marine Life. Baroness Thatcher still has yet to make a statement about her views on her new prehistoric counterpart or on Mr Scarfe's caricature.