Some 113 million years ago, a pterosaur with an eight-foot wingspan and an incredible decorative head crest roamed across a lush landscape, before it died and was buried in sediment.
Eons later, in 2013, the animal’s remains were seized during a police raid at Santos Harbour in São Paulo State, Brazil, along with other illegally obtained fossils.
Now, scientists led by Victor Beccari, a paleontologist at the University of São Paulo, have revealed that this confiscated specimen is the most complete known skeleton of a “tapejarid,” a family of ornamented pterosaurs. The animal is so intact that even some soft tissue has been preserved in its fossils, making it an “an unprecedented record of an articulated tapejarid skeleton,” according to a study published on Wednesday in Current Biology.
“We were in awe when we first saw the specimen,” said Beccario in an email, who initially examined the skeleton in 2016 while he was still an undergraduate student. “It was already prepared before the police confiscated the specimen, so we could tell right away it was an exceptional fossil.”
The skeleton, known as GP/2E 9266, belongs to a genus called Tupandactylus which is “perhaps the most impressive tapejarid known,” according to the study, due to its absolutely immense head crest. Scientists have identified two species from the genus: Tupandactylus navigans and Tupandactylus imperator, though it’s possible that these animals were sexually dimorphic, meaning they could represent male and female members of the same species with different characteristics.
Tupandactylus navigans GP/2E 9266. Image: Victor Beccari
Up until this point, paleontologists have only found isolated Tupandactylus skulls from Brazil’s Cretaceous Crato Formation. Now, for the first time, Beccario and his colleagues have access to a nearly intact skeleton with GP/2E 9266, which has been identified as Tupandactylus navigans.
“Tupandactylus navigans was a medium-size pterosaur, with a wingspan of approximately 2.6 meters, similar to that of a large swan,” Beccario said. “When standing on the ground, it would be around one meter (three feet) tall, with the cranial crest accounting for 40 percent of its height,” which is equivalent to over 40 centimeters (16 inches).
Though it’s clear that the dazzling specimen originates in the Crato Formation, the details of its discovery and excavation remain murky. The animal is preserved within six square-cut limestone slabs that were seized by the police nearly a decade ago, and which now belong to the Geosciences Institute at the University of São Paulo.
“Fossils in Brazil are protected by law, as they are part of the geological heritage of the country,” said Beccario. “Therefore, collecting fossils requires permission, and the trade and private collections of fossils are illegal in Brazil.”
“The Federal Police of Brazil was investigating a fossil trade operation and recovered, in 2013, over 3,000 specimens,” he added. “Those were deposited in the public institution Geosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo for studies and an exhibition. We don't know how the fossil was collected.”
Despite its mysterious origins, GP/2E 9266 is revealing all kinds of new insights about tapejarid pterosaurs now that it is in the hands of professional paleontologists. The specimen is so exquisitely preserved that remnants of soft tissue are visible within its massive crest as well as its bony beak. Future examination of this tissue could potentially reveal some of the colors that the striking animal displayed on its cranial ornament.
“Using UV light, we can see if there were any color patterns on the crest of this animal, and if further soft tissue was preserved (which decayed and is not visible in the naked eye now),” Beccario said. “[Scanning electron microscopy] would allow us to see if there are pigmentation molecules preserved in the specimen, and maybe try to understand a bit more about the coloration of the crest.”
The team also hopes that GP/2E 9266 will help answer unresolved questions about the habitat, behaviors, and flight capabilities of Tupandactylus. While its decorative head crest is certainly eye-catching, scientists believe it was so big that it may have limited the pterosaur’s ability to fly long distances.
As a result, Tupandactylus may have been more of a local forager that subsisted in a verdant Cretaceous environment, though more research into the new skeleton will test out this hypothesis, among others.
“Right now, we are working on the bite force of this specimen, using 3D models and stress analysis,” Beccario said. “This will help us understand what this animal ate, and then what his lifestyle was. After that, we want to take biomechanical approaches to flight capabilities and the aerodynamic influence of the head crest.”
“Finally, now that we have a full skeleton of Tupandactylus navigans we can better compare it to Tupandactylus imperator, another pterosaur from the Crato Formation, as soon as we have a complete specimen of the latter,” he concluded. “This will allow us to understand if we are dealing with two different species (if the Tupandactylus imperator skeleton differs sufficiently from T. navigans) or if those two are from the same, sexually dimorphic species (if their skeleton is similar enough).”