Fossils Seized in Police Raid Demystify a Prehistoric Flying Reptile

Slabs of limestone recovered from a police raid in Brazil in 2013 revealed the most complete fossil of a pterosaur species ever found, providing new details on how the flying reptile might have looked and behaved some 110 million years ago.

The discovery also draws attention to the problem of scientific colonialism – the removal (and sometimes direct theft) of items of scientific value from their countries of origin by fossil dealers or more developed nations. According to the authors of a new report on the fossil, Brazil and other countries where their fossils were smuggled or shipped to other countries in the past now have the infrastructure to responsibly treat and study them – and should have benefits like scientific discoveries and achieve the coming tourism with a rich national fund of fossils.

The raid at a port near São Paulo resulted in the seizure of around 3,000 fossils, including many fish and insects, according to Victor Beccari, doctoral student and lead author of the study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE. The centerpiece was the almost complete skeleton of the pterosaur species Tupandactylus navigans, which was kept in six limestone slabs.

The strange reptile must have been breathtaking. With a huge Mohawk-style coat of arms, a bird-like beak, and a body covered in somewhat similar but not entirely fur, the pterosaur probably stood out even among the other exotic creatures of the early Cretaceous. Its expansive wingspan indicated that it was almost certainly flying, but likely only for short distances due to its long neck and large crest. It most likely spent a lot of time looking for food on the ground, the researchers say.

Researchers suspect that the coat of arms was both a blessing and a curse. Individuals who are equipped with a larger than average headgear may have attracted a partner more easily. The compromise? Greater vulnerability to predators. (Die young and maybe leave a beautiful corpse.)

Pterosaur fossils are rare. Their bones are extremely fragile, even more so than birds, say the researchers.

A lake with fluctuating salinity, created when Africa and Brazil separated, was ideal for fossil preservation. Researchers have access to many fish that have been preserved with their internal organs from this region. Mr. Beccari suspects that her specimen of the pterosaur died on the lake or on a river that carried the body into the lake.

“We believe there was no oxygen at the bottom of the lake so no animals or bacteria could spoil the animal,” said Mr Beccari. “If it could get to that part of the lake it would be safe from decomposition.”

The Brazilian authorities had to resolve legal issues as to where exactly the fossil should be sent. It was found in northeastern Brazil but confiscated in São Paulo in the southeast of the country. It was eventually handed over to the University of São Paulo, and in 2016, Mr. Beccari, then a student, and a team of researchers began studying it.

David Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London who was not part of the research team, said there were “no big surprises” in the new paper, but it does provide a more complete anatomical description of the species a skull was known ”, he said,“ we now have the whole animal ”.

“It’s a spectacular fossil,” he continued. “This group is known for their huge head comb. This one is big and ridiculous even by these standards, which is really pretty neat. “

For Dr. Hone is the most important part of the research that it even happened. “Smuggling fossils from Brazil is a huge problem for science,” he said.

As an example of what scientific colonialism has denied Brazil, Mr. Beccari pointed to places in the United States, such as Wyoming and Utah, whose famous dinosaur fossil finds “attract thousands of tourists every year.”

“Now that we have 3-D models and other technology to study this animal, there is no reason why this animal should leave our country,” said Mr Beccari. “If it stays in the country, it attracts tourism and more people have contact with their heritage. That is also good for science. “

Dr. Hone noted that movie stars and other wealthy people are paying huge sums to display fossils on their walls. A few years ago, actor Nicolas Cage brought the skull of a tyrannosaurus battar back to Mongolia after being contacted by the Department of Homeland Security.

“This is a specimen that is believed to be illegally smuggled or sold,” said Dr. Hone on the pterosaur, “and is now available in a museum and for research.”

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