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Natural History Museum scans Anhanguera fossil skull

The Natural History Museum in London has scanned the inside of the skull of a 100-million-year-old pterosaur has been seen by Natural History Museum fossil experts for the first time. Computed tomography (CT) scans revealed details of the ancient flying reptile’s braincase that will help scientists discover more about its behaviour.

Illustration of the ancient flying reptile, Anhanguera. It had a 4-5m wingspan. © Anness Publishing Ltd / Natural History Museum, London

The skull belongs to the extinct species Anhanguera – an Early Cretaceous fish-eating pterodactyloid with a long snout and a wingspan of 4-5 metres. The fossil skull, uncovered in Brazil, is half a metre long and is displayed in the Museum

To prepare the Anhanguera specimen for study, it went through a 2-year acid preparation process of being immersed in dilute acetic acid to dissolve away the limestone rock surrounding the skull. This was done before it was scanned, in fact before the CT-scan technology was even available to the Museum scientists.

Scanning the fossil skull was a delicate process. Because it was so long, it could not be placed into the CT scan flat and it needed to stand upright, supported by a special mount made of materials that allowed the scan rays to pass through it. The fossil needed to be able to rotate 360 degrees.

The Museum’s conservation team are used to these tricky manoeuvres as they deal with a huge variety of specimens, including some of the around 1000 pterosaur fossils looked after at the Museum.

‘The Anhanguera is the largest pterosaur fossil I have scanned,’ says Dr Farah Ahmed, Museum CT Facility Manager and Specialist. ‘It had to be scanned in two halves then stitched together using computer software which was quite tricky’. It took a couple of days to produce the final images’.