A fossil confiscated by Brazilian police is the best specimen of pterosaur of the species Tupandactylus navigans

The specimen of Tupandactylus navigans with the drawing indicating its bones (Image Beccari et al)
The specimen of Tupandactylus navigans with the drawing indicating its bones (Image Beccari et al)

An article published in the journal “PLoS ONE” reports the attribution of an almost complete pterosaur skeleton to the Tupandactylus navigans species. This fossil skeleton arrived in the hands of a team of researchers led by Dr. Victor Beccari in an adventurous way, as it was confiscated by the police along with other very well-preserved fossils during a raid at Santos Harbour, Brazil. The researchers subjected the skeleton to a CT scan that made it possible to create a 3D reproduction. The examination also led to the hypothesis that Tupandactylus navigans and Tupandactylus imperator actually constitute the two sexes of the same species.

Pterosaurs – order Pterosauria – were flying reptiles and were the first flying vertebrates more than 200 million years ago, during the Triassic period, then disappeared during the greatest mass extinction of the end of the Cretaceous. Sometimes mistakenly considered dinosaurs, their relation with other reptiles is still the subject of discussion.

The Tupandactylus navigans species was identified in 2003, originally as part of the Tapejara genus. Subsequent research led to the creation in 2007 of a new genus with different proposals. In 2011 there was a formal reclassification into the genus Tupandactylus, which includes this species and the species Tupandactylus imperator, also originally included in the genus Tapejara.

The genera Tupandactylus and Tapejara are part of the Tapejarid (Tapejaridae) family, which includes pterosaurs that lived during the Cretaceous period on different continents. The oldest and most primitive specimens were discovered in China, suggesting that that family originated in that area. Typically, Tapejarids had a bony crest on their skull and some species also had a crest formed of keratin and skin extending from the bony crest.

The fossils now attributed to the genus Tupandactylus were discovered in the Crato Formation, in today’s Brazil, with a dating that traces them back to about 112 million years ago. So far, the fossils discovered were mainly skulls, which showed that both species had a bony crest accompanied by a keratin structure.

The place where a fossil is discovered can offer various information about its origin and the environment in which it lived. However, the Tupandactylus navigans specimen at the center of this study was part of a fossil trafficking intercepted by the Brazilian police, so the examination concerned only the skeleton.

The skeleton studied is almost complete, by far the best-preserved known fossil among all those belonging to the genus Tupandactylus. This made it possible to study its anatomical characteristics, also because some soft tissues fossilized together with the skeleton. These are studies that have just begun and have various ramifications: for example, there have been various discussions on these pterosaurs’ flying skills and their diet.

According to the researchers’ conclusions, Tupandactylus navigans had characteristics that made it unsuitable for long flights, even if it had all the adaptations necessary to fly. It probably went down to the ground to feed and was herbivorous, like perhaps all Tapejarids.

A hypothesis proposed by the researchers is that Tupandactylus navigans and Tupandactylus imperator actually constitute the two sexes of a single species characterized by sexual dimorphism, that is, notable physical differences between the two sexes. In this case, there’s not a conclusion but a suggestion for the next studies. Dr. Victor Beccari’s team conducted the first study to describe the fossil which is now in the right hands thanks to the Brazilian police but leaves room for other studies that will take advantage of its completeness to examine the characteristics of its species and family in general.

Skeletarl reconstruction of Tupandactylus navigans in lateral (A) and dorsal (B) views together with an artistic reconstruction (C) (Image Beccari et al)
Skeletarl reconstruction of Tupandactylus navigans in lateral (A) and dorsal (B) views together with an artistic reconstruction (C) (Image Beccari et al)

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