Fossil from Police Raid Reveals Spectacularly Preserved Pterosaur

The flying reptile was among hundreds of fossils recovered by police in 2013.
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artist's rendering of a pterosaur

Artist's rendering of a pterosaur

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James Gaines, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- A fossil recovered by police has now been revealed to be one of the most spectacularly preserved examples of a pterosaur ever discovered.

"I was in awe when I saw it the first time," said lead author Victor Beccari, a paleontologist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, now with the Lourinhã Museum in Portugal. The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

Pterosaurs were flying reptiles found worldwide during the age of dinosaurs, and they grew into a wide variety of different body types. The recovered fossil is a species known as Tupanactylus navigans, a roughly swan-sized animal that sported a gigantic head crest and lived about 113 million to 100 million years ago in the early Cretaceous.

The fossil was originally dug up from the fossil-rich Crato Formation in northeastern Brazil, and was intercepted, along with hundreds of other less-impressive specimens, in a 2013 police raid in the Port of Santos. Brazil has strict laws protecting its fossils -- which are officially government goods -- yet smugglers have still often exported them illegally.

After the fossil was recovered, it was given to the University of São Paulo, where Beccari and his team examined the visible parts of the skeleton and looked inside the rock with a CT scanner. What emerged is the single most well-preserved pterosaur ever uncovered in Brazil. Almost the entire skeleton is present, even rarely preserved soft-tissue elements.

Because the fossil is so well preserved, it may allow scientists to ask more detailed questions about what the animal was like when it was alive, such as its place in the ecosystem -- questions that might be of value to pterosaur study around the world. "This fossil will open a lot of doors," said Beccari.

One question has to do with how strong a flyer this creature was. Some features, like a cumbersome crest and long back legs, suggest the pterosaur spent much of its time on the ground. But other evidence, like signs of strong chest muscles and a rigid, fused backbone, suggest it was capable of flight.

Beccari says it's possible the creature may have lived like a peacock, spending time on the ground but still able to muster a burst of flight should a predator appear.

Unfortunately, because the fossil was removed from the ground without proper scientific procedure, some information may be forever lost. The general provenance of the fossil as well as clues from the composition of the rock surrounding it pin the fossil's origin to the Crato Formation, but the precise location is unknown, for example, which limits how precisely the fossil can be dated. Still, Beccari describes the find as a win for Brazilian science. Many Brazilian fossils have disappeared into private collections, while the ones that are scientifically described often end up leaving the country forever, with researchers in other countries getting to be the ones to uncover their secrets.

Instead, this specimen of T. navigans will be staying in Brazil, where it is now available for the public to admire as part of an exhibition at the University of São Paulo.

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James Gaines (@the_jmgaines) is a freelance science journalist in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in outlets such as Nature, LiveScience, GOOD, Upworthy, and Atlas Obscura. He once had an alligator snapping turtle as a pet for about two hours.