Paleontologist Victor Beccari felt as if he had won the lottery in 2016 when he received in his hands a pterosaur fossil of the species Tupandactylus navigans.
It wasn’t just any object. It was a fossil that, three years earlier, had almost been smuggled abroad and, more importantly, was exceptionally preserved, to the point of being considered one of the best preserved specimens known to exist.
For Beccari, it was a golden opportunity to study as an object of scientific initiation research, since the fossil even included the animal’s soft tissues. It is made up of six stone slabs that, together, include the animal’s skull and skeleton almost completely complete, with a few broken parts.
The pterosaur in question lived about 112 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, in the region where the Araripe basin is today, in northeastern Brazil, between the states of Ceará, Pernambuco and Piauí.
Like other pterosaurs in the Tapejaridae family, its main characteristic is the presence of a cephalic crest (on the head) formed by a trabecular (porous) bone at the base and a kind of soft tissue membrane — possibly collagen, but the researchers have not yet managed to get it. set your composition— at the top.
The description of the new finding came out in this Wednesday (25) edition of the prestigious scientific journal PLoS One, one of the most important in the field of biology.
With a wing span that could reach 3 m and a height from the feet to the top of the crest of approximately 1 m, the Tupandactylus navigans was a species that fed mainly on fruits and seeds that it harvested from the ground or from lower trees, believe the scientists. Flying was probably not one of his most routine activities.
“The crest on the head is very developed, it is quite large, which brings several costs to the animal, as it can hamper flight, so we believe it is more plausible that it was used as a display to attract individuals of the opposite sex, more or less what the peacock’s tail looks like,” explains Beccari.
Fruit of the collaboration between five research institutions, including the University of São Paulo, where Beccari graduated in biological sciences, the Federal University of ABC (Ufabc) and the Federal University of Pampa (Unipampa), of Rio Grande do Sul, the The publication of the article represents the beginning of a new phase of investigation of this and other species of pterosaur, 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 among about 3,000 specimens of semi-precious rocks and fossils that would be smuggled abroad.
After the seizure, the material was sent to USP’s Geosciences Institute, where it underwent a process of cataloging and inclusion in the paleontology collection. It was only available for study in 2016, when Beccari had the opportunity to start working with the material.
Complete skeletons, such as Tupandactylus navigans, have a very high market value in auctions abroad, and it is likely that this would 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 outside the country. “The problem is that we didn’t even have a way of knowing where the material was going, it could go to a private collection, and then it wouldn’t be available to the scientific community”, says Beccari.
For Fabiana Costa, professor of paleontology at Ufabc and one of the authors of the study, the material is impressive for being an articulated skeleton with a high level of preservation, something extremely rare and informative. “Fortunately, the specimen did not ‘flew’ out, literally, but it took us very little to lose this and so many other materials that were seized in the PF’s operation at the Port of Santos,” he says.
Tapjaridae are also known for some localities in China and, to a lesser degree, for the Late Cretaceous of Morocco and Spain, although these records are not confirmed.
The species Tupandactylus imperator, “brother” of the navigans, was also described for Araripe. The two species are very similar to each other, with the difference that the imperator’s crest is more elongated at the back of the head, while in navigans it is taller and more curved.
But, as navigans had hitherto been known only from preserved skulls, it was not possible to trace the differences between the two species very well apart from the crest and the size of the head, which can be a highly variable characteristic among animals.
The preserved skeleton of navigans also provided important information about how the animal lived.
“The coolest thing about this fossil is that it also allows opening a series of new studies, such as ways of preserving the specimen, wing opening, biomechanical studies, sexual dimorphism [presença de características diferentes entre os machos e as fêmeas], among others”, says paleontologist Lucas Piazentin, a specialist in pterosaurs and who recently defended his master’s thesis at USP’s Biosciences Institute on the subject, and did not participate in the study.
For paleontologist Luiz Eduardo Anelli, curator of the paleontology collection at the Institute of Geosciences and also author of the PLoS study, the PF’s most recent seizures of fossils that would be smuggled only show a greater interest in Brazilian paleontology, and could be a step forward more for the consolidation of a paleontological culture in the population, which would be something to be valued.
“A lot of material is taken [para fora], but it has caused more and more discomfort, mainly because Brazilian paleontologists began to speak out and denounce, even leading to the withdrawal of scientific articles published with smuggled fossils [como o dinossauro Ubirajara jubatus]. This animal could only be born for science like this, now that it is born, let’s see what Brazilian paleontologists will be able to extract from this and other specimens, and I believe a lot”, he says.