WorldPolice operation in Brazil rescues the only complete fossil of an almost...

Police operation in Brazil rescues the only complete fossil of an almost unknown flying reptile

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Researchers could not believe what they were seeing. In Brazil, an important part of the fossils that are found are sold and illegally exported to Europe and the USA. In recent years, authorities have been fighting this looting and, in 2013, the Federal Police handed over to the University of São Paulo 3,000 samples confiscated in an operation in the port of Santos against the trafficking of fossils, for analysis and cataloguing. The researchers’ surprise was enormous when they discovered a complete specimen of Tupandactylus navigans, a species of flying reptile from the Cretaceous period (between 145 and 66 million years ago). Until then, the samples that had been found only allowed to know details about the skull of these animals.

O Tupandactylus navigans belongs to the tapejaridae family, a subgroup of pterosaurs. These flying reptiles belong to the Early Cretaceous and are characterized by having huge crests. In Brazil, its fossils are abundant, but most are just skulls, which made it difficult to study this group in depth. However, the specimen found after the police action is in very good condition. Victor Beccari, a researcher at USP and one of the authors of a study published this month, tells in an email that the individual has “more than 90% of his skeleton and similar soft tissue remnants from the crest of the head and beak of keratin. compared to today’s birds”.

The skeleton has more than 90% bones, remnants of the soft tissue from the crest of the head and a keratin beak

The fossil is divided into six large purpose-cut stones that fit together perfectly. This division has the same form used in the quarries of the Crato Formation, in the Araripe Basin (in the States of Ceará, Pernambuco and Piauí), an area very rich in fossil sediments, in which commercial and paleontological explorations coexist. In this case, the stones were probably cut to be sold for construction, until the presence of this fossil was noticed. In addition, the characteristics of the confiscated rocks correspond to the limestone layers in the area, which leads researchers to locate their origin in this region. Even so, experts believe it will be very difficult to find the exact location. This area is known for the large amount of fossil remains found in recent years, with a very high level of conservation thanks to the materials in the area.

Image of the complete fossil of ‘Tupandactylus navigans’.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, allowed to know in detail the physical characteristics of this species. It measured more than 2.5 meters in wingspan (from one wing tip to the other) and up to one meter in height, although almost half the height corresponded to the crest. With those proportions, added to a long neck, researchers suspect the animal could not fly great distances. “The skeleton has different adaptations to have a powerful takeoff, which the animal could have used to quickly flee from predators,” says Beccari. Thus, the Tupandactylus he would be forced to perform most of his daily life on dry land. “This means that this animal could feed on hard plant material, such as seeds, pineapples or hard fruits”, considers the researcher.

It measured more than 2.5 meters in wingspan and up to one meter in height, although almost half the height corresponded to the crest. Researchers suspect the animal could not fly great distances

Francisco Ortega, a paleontologist at the Faculty of Sciences at UNED, believes that the level of conservation will make it possible to know in depth this species and some nearby groups. “This discovery introduces a very well-known element in the tapejaridae, which allows us to interpret elements of their surroundings that are not so well preserved”, he emphasizes. “It’s like a wave of information that affects all your neighbors and allows us to greatly improve the understanding of a specific group,” he adds. Jesús Marugán, professor at the Paleontology Unit at the Autonomous University of Madrid, highlights the “exceptional” quality of preservation and believes that the discovery may help “to discover details of the deep biology of these fossils that, otherwise, we would not know”. And he adds: “I wouldn’t be surprised, even though they didn’t say anything, that [os pesquisadores] could enter the central nervous system, the brain”. As a curiosity, this copy is a very close relative of the Europejara olcadesorum, a species whose remains were found in the Spanish deposit of Las Hoyas, in Cuenca.

Future tests will allow Beccari’s team to learn more details about the species and confirm many of their suspicions. “A 3D analysis of the skull will be used to estimate its bite force and understand what type of food it had. The 3D model of the body can help us in a more precise aerodynamic study to prove our hypothesis about this animal’s flight capabilities. Furthermore, the soft tissue of the crest is already being studied to understand its conservation and perhaps even its coloration. The idea is to use ultraviolet light to see if there is any color pattern on the crest”, points out the researcher.

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