A researcher from the University of Lincoln, part of an international team that discovered an ancient fossil nicknamed Mrs T, helped for the first time to sex pterodactyls, flying reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs 220 million years ago.
Pterosaurs, flying reptiles, also known as pterodactyls, dominated the skies in the Mesozoic Era and featured prominently in the film Jurassic Park III and are a classic feature of many dinosaur films.
Dr Charles Deeming was part of an international team of researchers from the Universities of Leicester, Lincoln and the Geological Institute, Beijing, who found the groundbreaking fossil (pictured).
The new discovery, christened Mrs T (a contraction of Mrs Pterodactyl) by the research team, was made in Jurassic rocks of Liaoning Province in northeast China and seems to represent a tragic accident.
The well-developed shell shows that Mrs T was just about ready to lay her egg when she was killed in an accident that broke her left forearm, possibly the result of a storm, or perhaps even a volcanic eruption around 160 million years ago.
This individual of Darwinopterus (a type of pterosaur from China first described by the same team of scientists in 2009) has an egg and must be female.
This type of discovery, in which gender can be determined with certainty, is extremely rare in the fossil record, and the first to be reported for pterosaurs.
Dr Charles Deeming, an embryologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Lincoln, was part of the research team that studied the fossil.
He said: “This was a great find – we could compare this soft-shelled pterosaur egg with other pterosaur eggs in the fossil record and use its dimensions to predict its likely size and even how big the hatchling was going to be.
“The pterosaur’s eggshell is typical of relatively small eggs of modern lizards and snakes, not the relatively large hard-shelled eggs of birds, and so incubation would have been in an underground nest.”
Dr David Unwin, a Pterosaur expert at the University of Leicester, also worked on the specimen and said: “Gender is one of the most fundamental of biological attributes, but extremely difficult to pinpoint with any certainty in the fossil record. Being able to sex pterosaurs is a major step forward.”
The full details of the unique new find were published in the Science journal.