An extraordinarily well-preserved pterosaur fossil, fondly referred to as one of the “crown jewels of the Museum of Geological Sciences in São Paolo” by the palaeontologist who has spent five years unlocking its secrets, could well have been lost to science were it not for a lucky police raid in the harbour of São Paolo eight years ago.
The specimen, whose anatomy has been unveiled today for the first time in a new study in the journal PLOS ONE, was uncovered in 2013 among a trove of fossils bound for private sales around the world as part of Brazil’s infamous illegal fossil trade.
In Brazil, fossils are federal assets that can’t be traded or exported, but they’re also a lucrative money-maker on the black market. The massive police bust that saved the specimen resulted in arrests across São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais and resulted in the seizure of around 1,000 fossils bound for museums in Europe.
This was particularly fortuitous for Victor Beccari, the lead author of the paper, from the University of São Paolo, Brazil.
Beccari and his team have made a number of important discoveries about this mysterious pterosaur, Tupandactylus navigans. Namely, despite pterosaurs being most commonly known for flying on prodigiously large wings, they found that T. navigans likely lived a terrestrial, foraging lifestyle.
“We usually think they [pterosaurs] must be good flyers,” says Beccari, “however, this animal has this head crest that is over 40 centimetres tall, and with only a two and a half metre long wingspan and a very long neck.”
This means T. navigans would likely have found it impossible to fly long distances, thanks to its abnormally heavy load. Beccari likens the creature to the peacock: “The peacock can fly – it will flee predators – but it’s not a very good flyer. It can’t go from one country to another or use flight to acquire food.”
The team also found that the skeleton had very long legs, suggesting T. navigans spent long hours on the ground foraging for food.
The fossil is the first complete skeleton of its kind: previous specimens of the creature amounted to two skulls, lacking lower jaws, housed in Germany.
“We don’t know how they got to Germany, but probably in these illegal trades,” Beccari says.
He says the illegal fossil and mineral trade that could have vanished T. navigans from Brazil altogether is a major problem for the country’s palaeontologists: “Unfortunately, these things happen because we have places where fossils are very abundant and the wages are not very good.”
Beccari says that, in the northern part of Brazil, many people are faced with pay packets below the minimum wage, so fossils can be their best chance of making an extra buck.
The specimen in question was traced back to a quarry in the north-east of Brazil, based on the type of limestone. But where exactly in the ground the creature was plucked from remains a mystery thanks to its hazy provenance.
Despite the damaging effects of the illegal fossil trade on Brazilian science, Beccari says the specimen’s chequered history has actually turned out to be a boon for his research: its traffickers cut the fossil into six slabs for transportation (something the scientists would never have been able to do), which allowed them to insert each slab into a CT machine and study the creature’s anatomy in precise detail.
This also means they were able to publish three-dimensional models of the creature, which can be accessed and studied by anyone around the world.
The success of the police raid is a win for Brazilian palaeontology, Beccari says.
“A fossil like this would usually be in a private collection so inaccessible to science, or it would be in European institutions,” he says, “so Brazilians would not have access to the fossil – but now we do. “It’s a way to keep the heritage in Brazil.”
Amalyah Hart is a science journalist based in Melbourne.
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