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Dimorphodon macronyx, found 1828

Dimorphodon reconstruction
Reconstruction of Dimorphodon macronyx by Richard Owen from 'Monograph of the Fossil Reptilia of the Liassic Formations’, Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society, Vol 35 (1881).  GSL Library collections.

Collini pterosaur
The first recognised pterosaur Pterodactylus antiquus, reproduced in W Buckland, 'Geology and mineralogy considered with reference to natural theology' (1836). GSL Library collections.

The majority of the fossil creatures which Mary Anning had found up until this point had been acquatic but in December 1828, she excavated something entirely different which became the subject of the first part of William Buckland’s 1829 paper. 

Prior to Anning's discovery, fossils of hollow bone fragments found in Britain were presumed to have been the remains of ancient birds.  However, between 1801-1819 the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) published examples of almost perfect specimens of fossil flying reptiles which had been recovered from the late Jurassic limestones of Bavaria.  A figure of the earliest example [see the image on the left] was first published in 1784, where it was thought to be some kind of marine animal with foldable arms.  Cuvier reassessed the creatures and gave them a name - ptero-dactyle = wing finger.  Buckland and others suspected that the hollow bones might belong to (the now more correctly termed) pterosaurs.  Anning’s discovery confirmed that pterosaurs could indeed be found in Britain.  

Buckland thumb

“In the same blue lias formation at Lyme Regis, in which so many specimens of Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus have been discovered by Miss Mary Anning, she has recently found the skeleton of an unknown species of that most rare and curious of all reptiles, the Pterodactyle, an extinct genus, which has yet been recognized only in the upper Jura limestone beds of Aichstedt and Solenhofen, in the lithographic stone...” W Buckland, “On the discovery of a new species of Pterodactyle in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, Transactions of the Geological Society, London, S2-3 (1829). 

Anning pterosaur
Incomplete pterosaur found by Mary Anning in December 1828. The jaw fragments shown in the top left of the image are from the collection of fellow Lyme resident and fossil collector Elizabeth Philpot.  From W Buckland, “On the discovery of a new species of Pterodactyle in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, Transactions of the Geological Society, London, S2-3 (1829).  GSL Library collections.

The specimen’s longer claws were different to the Bavarian examples so Buckland named it Pterodactylus macronyx.  It is now known as Dimorphodon macronyx (1829 Buckland).  Although missing its head, Buckland estimated the flying creature to be about the size of a raven but closer in resemblance to a modern bat.   

Buckland reverse

“ short, a monster resembling nothing that has ever been seen or heard-of upon earth, excepting the dragons of romance and heraldry. Moreover, it was probably noctivagous and insectivorous, and in both these points resembled the bat; but differed from it, in having the most important bones in its body constructed after the manner of those of reptiles. With flocks of such-like creatures flying in the air, and shoals of no less monstrous Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri swarming in the ocean, and gigantic crocodiles and tortoises crawling on the shores of the primaeval lakes and rivers,—air, sea, and land must have been strangely tenanted in these early periods of our infant world.” From W Buckland, “On the discovery of a new species of Pterodactyle in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, Transactions of the Geological Society, London, S2-3 (1829). 

Pterosaurs lived between the late Triassic period (c.220 million years ago) to the end of the Cretaceous period (c.65.5 million years ago).  They varied in size, with wingspans from only few inches to over 30 feet.  Dimorphodon macronyx was one of the earliest species, dating from around 200 million years ago, with a projected wingspan of 1.4 metres. As well as flying, all pterosaurs walked, folding up their flying fingers to keep their wings out of the way. 

The original specimen is now held by the Natural History Museum.


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