Police in Brazil seized a fossil from smugglers that has turned out to be one of the best-ever preservations of a pterosaur, a flying reptile that lived over 100 million years ago. They caught it just in time, as the fossil had been cut apart and was about to be shipped out of the country. Now, eight years later, paleontologists have finally been able to give it a good look—and they were thrilled.
The fossil belongs to a Tupandactylus navigans, a type of pterosaur from the early Cretaceous, the beginning of the end of the dinosaur age. First identified in 2003, T. navigans is a tapejarid, a medium-sized pterosaur particularly recognizable for the large soft tissue crests. (Another example is the larger animal Tupandactylus imperator, whose sail dwarfs that of T. navigans.) The rescued T. navigans features a lovely sail-shaped crest sprouting from its head and even a smaller crest descending from the tip of its jaw, like the pointiest chin you’ve ever seen. Tapejarids have been fragmentary in the fossil record, so the recently described fossil overhauls paleontologists’ understandings of what a full creature would look like.
The specimen was found in a police raid at São Paulo’s Santos Harbor, one of three raids in 2013 that turned up 3,000 fossil specimens, set to be smuggled out of the country. Unfortunately, illegal trafficking of fossils out of Brazil is an all-too-common problem in the country; the thousands of fossils the police recovered in 2013 signify a longstanding problem that’s yet to have any clear-cut solution.
The 3,000 fossils were confiscated by Brazilian police and eventually distributed to two Brazilian museums. Today, a team of Brazilian researchers published their analysis of the remarkably well-preserved T. navigans fossil found in the raid. The fossil had been sawed into six pieces but nonetheless offered a unique look into the morphology of the early Cretaceous pterosaur. Their results were published in the journal PLOS One.
“Now we have this specimen that has not only the complete skull, so the best-preserved skull of all the Tupandactylus that we have, but also the post-cranial almost fully articulated,” said Victor Beccari, a paleontologist at the University of São Paulo and lead author of the paper, in a video call.
“We think this fossil is at least 95% complete, which for paleontologists is already a lot, but for a pterosaur is even crazier,” Beccari added. “Not only the bones but the soft tissue—the crest and the beak.”
The fossil was irreparably damaged when it was cut, which was in all likelihood to make it easier to transport. (“If we receive a fossil with this specimen intact, there’s no way in heaven or hell you’d cut the specimen the way they did,” Beccari said.) But the smaller tranches of the T. navigans specimen made it possible for the research team to pop the fossil into a medical-grade CT scanner, imaging every layer of the fossil through the rock. They then were able to create a 3D working model of the pterosaur’s entire body shape and size.
“The authors did excellent work of describing in detail all the bony elements, including CT scanning, which brought a new look at morphology … Although it belongs to a known taxon, this specimen brings new information about the tapejarid pterosaurs as well as an excellent soft tissue preservation, which can show us more about the paleobiology of the group,” Alex Aires, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Santa Maria in Brazil who was unaffiliated with the research, said in an email.
Based on its morphology—its head crest seemed too big to allow the pterosaur to fly long distances, though it was capable of powered flight—the researchers believe it had a terrestrial foraging lifestyle. This pterosaur fossilized in the limestone beds of what is now northeastern Brazil. That stretch of stone is called Crato Formation and is renowned for its preservation conditions. Based on other fossils found in that area, the pterosaur’s environment may have been a saline lake.
Not everything about the pterosaur is set in stone, though. Beccari’s team still needs to probe the 3D models they built to better understand how T. navigans may have moved around its environment. They also want to understand more about its ecological niche. What is for sure is that none of this would be possible if the fossil had been smuggled out of Brazil as planned.