Secrets of prehistoric flying reptile revealed thanks to one-of-a-kind fossil

“I have observed many exceptional and very well-preserved pterosaurs in Brazil and elsewhere, but specimens like this one, so complete and articulated, with preserved soft tissue, are very rare,” said Fabiana Rodriguez Costa, a paleontologist at California State University. ABC in Sao Paulo. She is co-author of a study published Aug. 25 in the journal PLUS ONE. “It’s like winning the lottery. »

The species was first described in 2003 by German and English scientists from two skulls. However, for the first time, paleontologists have been able to study other parts of the animal’s body, including soft tissues, neck, wings, and leg bones. These discoveries could one day help resolve one of the longstanding disputes in paleontology: how did the monumental crests on the heads of these reptiles affect their ability to fly?

“It’s a one-of-a-kind fossil,” adds Ms. Costa.


Pterosaurs were close relatives of dinosaurs. They populated the Earth with them. While dinosaurs flourished on the surface, pterosaurs dominated the skies. They lived together from the end of the Triassic, over 200 million years ago, until the end of the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago. Around the same time, both groups became extinct after the asteroid collided with the Earth with full force.

Unlike the order of dinosaurs, which survived thanks to birds, pterosaurs do not have living descendants. Fossils are the only way to learn more about the appearance and lifestyle of these prehistoric flying creatures. However, pterosaur fossils are very rare. Their fragile bones do not hold well. Mostly only fragments of the skeleton are found.

The remains of these animals were mainly found in sediments that were once flooded with water. The corpses were quickly buried in the muddy mud at the bottom of lakes or oceans. The lack of oxygen in these regions limits their decomposition.

The Araripi Basin in Brazil was once covered in salt water lagoons. Today it is an arid and desolate area. There are many amazingly well-preserved fossils embedded in limestone blocks. “When you open a stone, it’s like opening a book. In its pages you will find fossils,” says Felipe Lima Pinheiro, a paleontologist and study co-author at the Federal University of Pampa in San Gabriel, Brazil.

Twenty-seven of the more than one hundred and ten pterosaur species known today come from this region. Tapecharides (Tapejaridae) form the most diverse and widespread family of the genus tupandactyl. All of these pterosaurs had huge, brightly colored crests.

While the Araripe Basin is rich in fossils, Pinheiro says pterosaur fossils are not common, let alone complete. Besides, the illegal fossil trade is not helping. Samples often end up in the hands of foreign buyers rather than Brazilian museums and research centers.

“This near-complete fossil is a major discovery,” said Rodrigo Vargas Pegas, a paleontology graduate from ABC Federal University in Santo André, Brazil, who was not involved in the new study. “This is great news for Brazilian paleontology. »


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