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Fossil seized in a police raid is one of the most complete pterosaur skeletons ever found

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(CNN) – A discovery made during a police raid has been identified as the most complete fossil of a flying reptile in Brazil. The remains reveal new information about the tapejarids, or pterosaurs, that roamed the skies during the Early Cretaceous period, between 100.5 and 145 million years ago.

A study on the findings was published Wednesday in the academic journal PLOS ONE.

These particular pterosaurs are best known for having a giant crest crowning their heads. Tapejarids are common in the Brazilian fossil record, but most of them are only partial remains.

The newly discovered fossil preserves almost the entire body of the pterosaur, including soft tissue samples. This species is known as Tupandactylus navigans.

The fossil was found in limestone plates.

The fossil was in six limestone slabs that were confiscated during a 2013 police raid in the port of Santos, in São Paulo.

“The Brazilian Federal Police was investigating a fossil trade operation and recovered, in 2013, more than 3,000 specimens,” said Victor Beccari, author of the study and vertebrate paleontologist at the University of São Paulo. “Fossils in Brazil are protected by law, as they are part of the geological heritage of the country. Therefore, the collection of fossils requires a permit, and trade and private collections of fossils are illegal,” he added.

Once the plates were transferred to the University of São Paulo, they put them together like a puzzle to decipher the fossil and the researchers performed a CT scan to find the bones within the stone. Beccari and his colleagues began studying the fossil in 2016.

A key discovery

The discovery marked the first time that researchers have studied a nearly complete skeleton, rather than just the skull, of T. navigans. This allowed them to reconstruct the appearance and behavior of the creature when it was alive.

“The specimen is exceptionally well preserved, with more than 90% of its skeleton and soft tissue impressions of the head crest and bill keratinous (a structure similar to that found in birds, called rhamphotheca),” he said. Beccari.

The skeleton comes from the rich fossil formation of Crato, in northeastern Brazil, and was dated about 115 million years ago.

The pterosaur had a long neck, and the researchers believe that it spent most of its time on the ground looking for food, such as seeds and fruits, and that it probably did not fly long distances.

“This pterosaur had a wingspan of more than 2.5 meters and a height of 1 meter (40% corresponds to the crest of the head)”, explains Beccari. “With such a high cranial ridge and relatively long neck, this animal may have been restricted to short-haul flights,” he adds.

Data from a CT scan allowed the researchers to reconstruct the pterosaur, including its impressive cranial crest. Credits: Victor Beccari

Fit to fly

However, these pterosaurs had the adaptations necessary for powered flight, including a notarium, or the bone that helped hold the chest against the forces created by the movement of their wings. The pterosaur also had a developed muscle anchoring region within the bones of its arms, according to the researchers.

“The skeleton shows all the adaptations for powered flight that the animal could have used to quickly flee from predators,” Beccari said.

In addition to the large head crest, T. navigans also had a large chin crest. More research is needed to understand how this affected the pterosaur’s flight.

“This specimen allows us to better understand the complete anatomy of this animal and provides insight into its ecology,” he added.

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