Giant flying reptile found in desert dig

A giant flying reptile has been discovered which lived in the Sahara 95 million years ago and had a wingspan of six metres (19ft),scientists said yesterday.

The pterosaur, which had a lance-shaped lower jaw making it look like a huge heron, was found by a team of scientists from University College Dublin, the University of Portsmouth and Universite Hassan II in Casablanca.

According to the findings published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE yesterday, the scientists believe the newly identified pterosaur to be the earliest example of its kind.

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It was unearthed in three separate well preserved pieces and, unlike most other pterosaur fossils, retains its original three-dimensional shape.

Dr David Martill, a reader in palaeobiology at the University of Portsmouth's School of Earth and Environmental Studies, said: "This is the first of this type of pterosaur to be recorded in Africa, and is related to the Texan giant pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus, the largest animal ever to fly."

Expedition leader Nizar Ibrahim, an expert on north African dinosaurs from University College Dublin, said: "This pterosaur is distinguished from all others by its lance-shaped lower jaw which had no teeth and looked rather like the beak of a gigantic heron.

"During the excavation, we also discovered a partial neck vertebra that probably belonged to the same animal, inferring a wingspan of about six metres."

The scientists have named the new pterosaur Alanqa saharica from the Arabic word meaning phoenix, a mythological flying creature that dies in a fire and is reborn from its ashes.

The scientists also discovered fossils of two other types of pterosaur, suggesting several types of pterosaur lived alongside one another.