A FOSSIL which had been wrongly labelled in a museum drawer has been identified as an entirely new species of flying prehistoric creature.

The discovery was made by PhD student Roy Smith, who had requested to visit the Booth Museum in Brighton to explore a particular collection of fossils gathered in Cambridge by 19th century collector Andrew Griffith.

Geologist John Cooper, who volunteers at the museum as the emeritus keeper of natural sciences, said University of Portsmouth student Roy was trawling through the collection when he suddenly became excited over a specimen labelled as a shark fin spine.

John said: “This is a little thing which is only an inch long. Roy found it and straight away he said, ‘Wow, I know what this is – it’s the jaw of a pterosaur’.

“He’s now published a paper and this specimen gets a mention as it’s a completely new species. We’re talking about 110 million years ago.”

Roy described it as “a palaeontological mystery” because the specimen is “clearly distinct” from other pterosaur fossils.

He realised it was not a shark fin because of tiny holes where nerves come to the surface, used for sensitive feeding by the pterosaurs, which shark fin spines do not have.

John said: “It would have flown over Brighton and Sussex as well as Cambridge, but back then Cambridge was a shallow sea whereas Brighton was land, and it’s more difficult to fossilise on land.”

He said the flying reptile would have been somewhere between the size of a magpie and an eagle and would have lived near streams and rivers to catch fish.

The fossil is part of the creature’s jaw, and remains of pterosaurs with the same kind of beak have been found in north Africa. It is the earliest vertebrate known to have evolved powered flight.

John said: “It’s a pterosaur with a long beak and without teeth, which in some ways resembles a bat as its wings were made of skin. Some pterosaurs would have been much bigger – the size of a small aircraft.

“This jaw looks rather like a fish spine, which is what the collector Andrew Griffith thought.”

John, who was previously a curator at the museum but retired in 2013, said he keeps coming back to volunteer as he loves to be part of exciting discoveries like this one.

He said: “We have a long history of our collections being looked at like this to work out the history of life.

“We’ve had someone recognise a new species of armoured dinosaur in the past.

“I’ve been here since 1981 and the collections are like my babies.

“I love looking after them and making them available to other people, whether it’s a little child or a university professor.”