The paleontologist Victor Beccari felt like he had won the lottery in 2016 when he got his hands on a pterosaur fossil of the species Tupandactylus navigans.
It wasn’t just any object. It was a fossil that had almost been smuggled abroad three years earlier and, most importantly, was exceptionally well preserved until it is considered one of the best preserved specimens there is.
For Beccari, it was a golden chance to study as an object of introductory scientific research, as the fossil even included the soft tissues of the animal. It consists of six stone slabs that together almost completely encompass the skull and skeleton of the animal, with some broken off parts.
The pterosaur in question lived about 112 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, in the region in which the Araripe Basin is located today, in northeastern Brazil, between the states of Ceará, Pernambuco and Piauí.
As with other pterosaurs in the Tapejaridae family, its main feature is the presence of a head crest, which is formed from a trabecular (porous) bone at the base and a kind of soft tissue membrane – possibly collagen, but the researchers haven’t gotten it off yet to get it. Set your composition – right at the top.
The description of the new result was published in the Wednesday (25) issue of the prestigious scientific journal PLoS One, one of the most important in the field of biology.
With a wingspan of 3 m and a height from the feet to the top of the ridge of about 1 m, the Tupandactylus navigans was a species that mainly fed on fruits and seeds that they harvested from the ground or from low trees. believe the scientists. Flying was probably not one of his routine activities.
“The crest on the head is very developed, it is quite large, which causes several costs for the animal, as it can impede the flight, something like the tail of the peacock,” explains Beccari.
Result of the collaboration between five research institutions, including the University of São Paulo, where Beccari graduated in Life Sciences, the ABC Federal University (Ufabc) and the Pampa Federal University (Unipampa) of Rio Grande do Sul, the publication of the article marks the beginning of a new phase of the Investigation of these and other pterosaur species, but also the end of a process that took years due to the origin of the material.
The fossil was seized by the federal police in 2013 from around 3,000 specimens of semi-precious stones and fossils that were supposed to be smuggled abroad.
After the seizure, the material was sent to the USP’s Geosciences Institute, where it was cataloged and added to the paleontological collection. It wasn’t available for study until 2016 when Beccari had the opportunity to work with the material.
Complete skeletons like Tupandactylus navigans have a very high market value at auctions abroad, and this is likely to be the fate of the Brazilian pterosaur.
The first fossil of the species was described by German researchers in 2003 and is currently in a collection abroad. “The problem is that we didn’t even know where the material was going, it could go to a private collection and then become unavailable to the scientific community,” says Beccari.
For Fabiana Costa, professor of paleontology at Ufabc and one of the authors of the study, the material impresses as a structured skeleton with a high degree of preservation, something extremely rare and informative. “Fortunately, the specimen didn’t literally ‘flown’, but it took us very little to lose this and so many other materials that were confiscated during the PF’s operation in the port of Santos,” he says.
Tapjaridae are also known for some localities in China and, to a lesser extent, late Cretaceous Morocco and Spain, although these records are not confirmed.
The species Tupandactylus imperator, “brother” of the navigators, has also been described for Araripe. The two species are very similar, with the difference that the imperial crest is longer at the back of the head, while in navigators it is higher and more curved.
However, since navigators were previously only known from surviving skulls, it was not possible to exactly understand the differences between the two species except for the crest and the size of the head, which can be a very variable characteristic in animals.
The surviving skeleton of seafarers also provided important information about the animal’s way of life.
“The coolest thing about this fossil is that it also enables a number of new studies, such as ways to preserve the specimen, wing opening, biomechanical studies, sexual dimorphism [presença de características diferentes entre os machos e as fêmeas], among other things, “says paleontologist Lucas Piazentin, specialist in pterosaurs, who recently defended his master’s thesis at the USP’s Biosciences Institute on the subject and did not participate in the study.
For paleontologist Luiz Eduardo Anelli, curator of the paleontological collection at the Institute of Geosciences and author of the PLoS study, the recent seizures of fossils to be smuggled just indicate a greater PF interest in Brazilian paleontology and could be a step forward its more for the consolidation of a paleontological culture in the population that should be honored.
“A lot of material is taken [para fora], but it has caused increasing discomfort, mainly because Brazilian paleontologists have started speaking out and denouncing, even leading to the withdrawal of scientific articles published with smuggled fossils [como o dinossauro Ubirajara jubatus]. This animal could only be born for such sciences. Now that it’s born, we’re seeing what Brazilian paleontologists can extract from this and other specimens, and I think a lot, ”he says.