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'Mrs T' gives up secrets of ambiguous sky lizards

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Bone-furtling boffins say they have cracked one of the most difficult tasks known among dinosaur aficionados - namely, that of sexing pterodactyls.

Sex related features of Darwinopterus. The male (right) has a large head crest, but this is absent in the female (left). Picture credit: Mark Witton

Have you got a canoe on your head or are you just pleased to see me?

According to a statement issued yesterday by Leicester uni:

The discovery of an ancient fossil, nicknamed "Mrs T", has allowed scientists for the first time to sex pterodactyls – flying reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs between 220-65 million years ago.

The university adds, somewhat gratuitously:

Pterodactyls featured prominently in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park III and are a classic feature of many dinosaur movies.

Until lately even the most knowledgeable paleontologists, finding a fossilised pterodactyl, would be unsure what sex the creature had been - rather like a modern anthropologist encountering a member of certain present-day urban subcultures, or someone meeting a dwarf in Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories.

No more: now an international team of scientists has discovered a fossilised lady pterodactyl bearing an almost fully developed egg, allowing the creatures' sex-based features to be positively nailed down.

"Many pterosaurs have head crests," explains paleobiologist David Unwin. "In the most spectacular cases these can reach five times the height of the skull. Scientists have long suspected that these crests were used for some kind of display or signalling and may have been confined to males, while females were crestless. But, in the absence of any direct evidence for gender this idea remained speculative...

“The fossil we have discovered, an individual of Darwinopterus, is preserved together with an egg showing that it 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.”

The Darwinopterus fossil confirms that crested pterodactlys are male and that the females of the species were crestless. According to the bone-boffins the moniker "Mrs T" is "a contraction of Mrs Pterodactyl" [shurely "Mrs Pt, but the P is silent"?].

Mrs T was discovered amid Jurassic rock formations located in Liaoning Province, northeast China. Unwin and his colleagues theorise that she was killed in a tragic prehistoric mishap - perhaps a volcanic eruption - just before laying her well-developed egg.

Apart from crestlessness, according to the investigating boffins, another distinctive feature of the lady pterodactyl is wider hips to permit easier passage of eggs. ®

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