The new species of pterosaur—a type of flying reptile that lived alongside the dinosaurs—was dubbed Vectidraco daisymorrisae after U.K. youngster Daisy Morris.
While exploring the U.K.'s Isle of Wight (map) in 2008, the then-five-year-old Morris came across blackened "bones sticking out of the sand," according to the BBC. (Vectidraco means "dragon from the Isle of Wight" in Latin.)
The Morris family brought the fossil to paleontologist Martin Simpson at the University of Southampton, who, with the help of colleagues, identified it as a new species. (Also see "New Giant Flying Reptile Found; Hunted on Foot?")
"In pterosaurs, certain parts of the skeleton, especially the skull and the pelvis, are really distinct between different [species]," explained Andrew Farke, a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California, and editor of the new study in PLoS ONE.
The newfound creature also belonged to a group of pterosaurs called the azhdarchoids, which, "in my opinion, are among the most interesting of pterosaurs," study co-author Darren Naish, also of Southampton University, said in a statement.
"All are from the Cretaceous, all are toothless, and many—perhaps all—were especially well adapted for life in terrestrial environments like woodlands, tropical forests, and floodplains," he said. (Related: "Pterosaur 'Runway' Found; Shows Birdlike Landing Style.")
New Pterosaur Was Expert Flyer
From the size of the pelvis, Simpson and his team estimate V. daisymorrisae had a wingspan of about 2.5 feet (75 centimeters) and was just over a foot (35 centimeters) from snout to tail, making it about the size of a gull or large crow.
V. daisymorrisae was a diminutive cousin of Quetzalcoatlus, which had a wingspan of more than 30 feet (10 meters) and was one of the largest flying creatures to have ever lived. (Watch a video of the "flying monster" Quetzalcoatlus.)
The England that V. daisymorrisae lived in 145 to 65 million years ago was also very different than today. It "was presumably quite a bit warmer then," Farke said, "and filled with lush vegetation."
If the new pterosaur was anything like its relatives, it probably had a head crest, was a reasonably good walker and runner on the ground, and could expertly fly through dense forests.
Daisy and the Dragon
More than a new species came out of Morris's fossil-collecting adventure: She also inspired study co-author Simpson to write a children's book entitled Daisy and the Isle of Wight Dragon. (Take National Geographic's dinosaur quiz.)
"The story highlights the special relationship between amateurs, academics, and curators, in bringing these important finds to the attention of the scientific world," Simpson said in a statement.
"It also shows that, continuing a long tradition in paleontology, major discoveries can be made by amateurs—often by being in the right place at the right time."