One of the most complete pterosaur fossils ever found is Brazilian. Since 2016, researchers from Brazil and Portugal have been studying a specimen of Tupandactylus navigans, who lived 110 million years ago. Now, the study that describes and analyzes the fossil was published in the journal PLOS One. The pterosaur still comes with a curious story: it was almost smuggled out of the country.
It all started with a operation police in 2013, that he intended to confront an international gang specialized in smuggling fossils and semi-precious stones. The police prevented, in the Port of Santos (SP), the illegal export of three thousand pieces, which would probably be sold to museums or private collections abroad. Among the pieces were limestone rocks extracted from the Araripe Basin, in the Northeast region of Brazil. They had the remains and well-preserved impressions of living beings that inhabited the planet millions of years ago. The items were delivered to the University of São Paulo (USP), which began researching the fossil three years later.
the species Tupandactylus navigans was described in 2003, by European researchers, from two skulls. However, this is the first time that it is possible to study such a fossil “exceptionally well preserved”, says Victor Beccari, lead author of the study.
The fossil belongs to an adult individual almost one meter tall, which has a beak and claws. Even soft tissues, such as internal organs, are in good condition.. Unlike bones and claws, they they are not usually preserved in the fossilization process, as they are delicate. In this pterosaur fossil, the soft tissues preserved were the animal’s crests – one in the jaw and the other in the head.
As previous studies started with skulls of the species, the researchers came across an unprecedented body to analyze. First, the researchers visualized and analyzed the fossil, describing bone by bone and comparing the material with other published studies to understand the anatomy of the pterosaur.
Then they took a tomography of the fossil and worked with the x-ray images to get a 3D model of the animal and look at structures that were inside the rock. So they continued the anatomical description to better understand how the proportions of the bones correlate with the animal’s life habits, Beccari told Super.
It was believed that the neck of the pterosaur would be short and with tendons ossified between the vertebrae, to resist the wind in flight. But none of this was found in the fossil. The long neck and crest of more than 40 centimeters would hinder long-distance flights. Also, the animal’s legs are longer than expected, and the wings are shorter.
“Thus, we believe that this animal spent a great deal of time on the ground, looking for food, and flew only to escape predators or for short distances. And he would use the crest to attract mates to mate,” says Beccari. According to the researcher, a good current analogue is the peacock – whose tail, as large as the pterosaur’s crest, makes flight difficult and is used to attract companions.
what remains to be discovered
The work also opened space for new questions. “There is a great debate about whether this animal is another Brazilian species (Tupandactylus imperator) would actually be the same species. This is because, even before our study, only the skulls of both animals were known,” says Beccari.
According to the researcher, the only visible difference is related to the crest, which can vary greatly between a male and a female. “We need to look at the rest of the skeleton of these animals and compare, to make sure they are two different species or not. But for that, we still need a complete skeleton of Tupandactylus imperator”, he explains.
Another issue is related to the feeding of the pterosaur. Researchers believe that he ate fruits, pine nuts, seeds and other types of hard plant material – but this is not well established yet.
Finally, there is the unknown of flight: although the discoveries made now indicate that the pterosaur did not fly long distances, it is still not possible to hit the hammer.
“We want to test [a partir de estudos biomecânicos] how this animal’s flight was impacted by the crest, to make sure it would be an aerodynamic disadvantage. Despite the anatomical evidence suggesting that yes, we could be wrong and we will only know with new mathematical data”, explains Beccari.
The researchers still intend to study the color of the crest in detail, looking for molecules, such as melanin, that may be preserved in the fossil.