Science

A treasure trove of newly found pterosaur fossils and eggs is revealing the lives of flying reptiles



Paleontologists
Xiaolin Wang and Alexander Kellner in the field, collecting new
specimens.
Alexander Kellner (Museu
Nacional/UFRJ)

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  • A new discovery of pterosaur eggs and fossils from
    the Hamipterus tianshanensis species in China
    gives us our most complete look at the early flying
    reptiles.
  • Researchers found at least 215 eggs with at least 16
    containing traces of embryos.
  • “We want to call this region ‘Pterosaur
    Eden.'”

They swooped and whirled across the sky, hunting for fish. Adult
pterosaurs of the Hamipterus
tianshanensis
 species had more than 11-foot wingspans
and rows of teeth.

But newly-hatched baby pterosaurs couldn’t yet fly, probably
didn’t have teeth, and most likely needed care from their
parents, according to newly published research appearing
in the journal Science
.

The new paper announced the discovery of a fantastic treasure
trove of fossils and at least 215 Hamipterus
tianshanensis
 pterosaur eggs in China. The findings
give researchers some of our first real insights into the early
development and reproductive life of the flying reptiles that
lived alongside and above the dinosaurs of the
early Cretaceous era, approximately 120 million years ago.

pterosaurs eggs chinaHundreds
of pterosaur bones laying on the surface, demonstrating the
richness of these sites.
Alexander
Kellner (Museu Nacional/UFRJ)

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Researchers are thrilled with the findings.

“We want to call this region ‘Pterosaur Eden,'” paleontologist
Shunxing Jiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

told Reuters
.

Up until now, scientists had only seen a few pterosaur eggs —
three from Argentina and five from China. That wasn’t enough to
really help researchers understand how the reptiles developed,
biologist D. Charles Deeming wrote in a perspective published
alongside the new paper.

pterosaurs eggs chinaIncomplete
pterosaur lower jaw of a young animal.
Alexander Kellner (Museu
Nacional/UFRJ)

“The work is a crucial advance in understanding pterosaur
reproduction,” he wrote.

Adult and juvenile fossils from males and females were also
discovered at the site in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Researchers found embryonic remains inside at least 16 of the
eggs, which helps show how the reptiles grew. Little ones had
less developed characteristics related to flight, which is why
the researchers think they were probably unable to take off.

Finding the huge collection together is an indication that these
early reptiles, which were the first flying vertebrates on Earth,
lived or at least nested in colonies, perhaps like sea turtles do
now. The authors wrote in the study, however, that no actual nest
has been found yet.

A storm likely washed the eggs and other pterosaurs into a nearby
lake, where they were fossilized.

The eggs themselves had soft, parchment-like shells.

pterosaurs eggs chinaPterosaur eggs,
preserved.
Wang et al., Science
(2017)

Because of the number of fossils found here, this species of
pterosaur is now the one we have the most complete picture of,
but questions remain, according to Deeming. We still don’t know
if the eggs were buried in sand or vegetation or why they
appeared dehydrated.

“Hopefully additional finds of equally spectacular fossils will
help us answer such questions for pterosaurs and allow us to
paint an increasingly complete picture of reproduction in these
extinct species,” he wrote.

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