Fossil confiscated in police raid is one of the most complete pterosaur skeletons ever found
Courtesy Victor Beccari

Fossil confiscated in police raid is one of the most complete pterosaur skeletons ever found

A discovery made during a police raid has been identified as the most complete fossil of a flying reptile from Brazil. The remains revealed new information about tapejarids, or pterosaurs that soared across the skies during the Early Cretaceous period between 100.5 million and 145 million years ago.

A study on the findings published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

These particular pterosaurs are best known for having a giant crest crowning the head. Tapejarids are common within Brazil’s fossil record, but most of these are only partial remains.

The newly discovered fossil preserves almost the entire body of the pterosaur, including bits of soft tissue. This species is known as Tupandactylus navigans.

The fossil was located in six squares of limestone slabs that were confiscated during a 2013 police raid of São Paulo’s Santos Harbour.

“The Federal Police of Brazil was investigating a fossil trade operation and recovered, in 2013, over 3.000 specimens,” said Victor Beccari, study author and vertebrate paleontologist at the University of São Paulo. “Fossils in Brazil are protected by law, as they are part of the geological heritage of the country. Therefore, collecting fossils requires permission, and the trade and private collections of fossils are illegal in Brazil.”

Once the slabs were moved to the University of São Paulo, they put the slabs together like a puzzle to figure out the fossil and researchers conducted a CT scan to find the bones inside the stone. Beccari and his colleagues began studying the fossil in 2016.

The discovery marked the first time researchers have studied a nearly complete skeleton, rather than just the skull, of T. navigans. This enabled them to reconstruct how the creature would have appeared and behaved when it was alive.

“The specimen is exceptionally well-preserved, with over 90% of its skeleton and soft-tissue impressions of the head crest and the keratinous beak (a structure similar to that found in birds, named rhamphotheca),” Beccari said.

The skeleton came from the fossil-rich Crato Formation in northeastern Brazil and was dated to about 115 million years ago.

The pterosaur had a long neck and the researchers believe it spent most of its time on the ground foraging for food like seeds and fruits and likely didn’t fly for long distances.

“This pterosaur was over 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in wingspan and was 1 meter (3.3 feet) tall (40% of this is accounted for by the head crest),” Beccari said. “With such a tall head crest and a relatively long neck, this animal may have been restricted to short-distance flights.”

However, these pterosaurs had the adaptations necessary for powered flight, including a notarium, or the bone that helped brace the chest against the forces created by the movement of its wings. The pterosaur also had a developed muscle anchoring region within its arm bones, according to the researchers.

“The skeleton shows all the adaptations for a powered flight, which the animal may have used to quickly flee predators,” Beccari said.

In addition to the large head crest, T. navigans also had some flair in the form of a large crest on its chin, too. More research is needed to understand how this affected the flight of the pterosaur.

“This specimen allows us to understand more about the complete anatomy of this animal and brings insights into its ecology,” he added.

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