A new type of giant flying reptile with a wingspan of six metres and which lived in the Sahara 95 million years ago has been discovered by a team of scientists from Dublin.
The pterosaur, which had a lance-shaped lower jaw making it look like a huge heron, was found by scientists from University College Dublin, alongside teams from the University of Portsmouth and University Hassan II in Casablanca.
According to the findings published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE on Tuesday, the scientists believe the newly identified pterosaur to be the earliest example of its kind.
The new species of pterosaur was unearthed in three separate well-preserved pieces and, unlike most other pterosaur fossils, retains its original three dimensional shape.
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."
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."
The scientists have named the new pterosaur Alanqa saharica from the Arabic word 'Al Anqa' meaning phoenix, a mythological flying creature that dies in a fire and is reborn from its ashes.
On the same expedition and in the same region the scientists also discovered fossils of two other previously identified types of pterosaur, suggesting several types of pterosaurs lived alongside one another.
Mr Ibrahim said: "When this pterosaur was alive, the Sahara desert was a river bed basin lush with tropical plant and animal life. This meant there were lots of opportunities for different pterosaurs to co-exist, and perhaps feeding on quite different kinds of prey."
The team also discovered rare dinosaur footprints, including some that record several animals walking along the same trail, as well as finding hundreds of dinosaur teeth, they also unearthed bits of giant crocodiles and some new species of fish.