Near-Complete Pterosaur Skeleton Obtained in Police Raid Reveals Stunning Details About the Species

The winged reptile’s anatomical features hint that it may have foraged around like a chicken and flown short distances to escape predators

An image of a fossilized Pterosaur skeleton
T. navigans was first described by researchers in 2003. However, until now, everything known about the species was based on two skulls. Beccari Et. Al PLOS ONE 2021Al

When police officers confiscated limestone slabs hidden in barrels at the Santos Harbor in Brazil in 2013, they recovered thousands of smuggled prehistoric specimens taken from Araripe Basin, National Geographic's Priyanka Runwal reports.

Among the fossils were six slabs featuring a near-complete skeleton of a now-extinct, winged reptile, Tupandactylus navigans. The pterosaur's remains are so remarkably preserved that researchers deciphered new details about the reptile, including how it may have soared in the skies, foraged for food and other anatomical characteristics, reports Nikk Ogasa for Science News. Details about the pterosaur's skeleton were published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Pterosaurs are a member of a group called tapejarids. These winged creatures are best known for their distinct oversized crests that would put a modern-day rooster to shame. T. navigans would have roamed the planet 100 million to 145 million years ago during the early Cretaceous period, Science News reports.

T. navigans was first described by researchers in 2003. However, until now, everything known about the species was based on two skulls. According to Science Alert's Tessa Koumoundouros, complete pterosaur fossils are scarce because their thin, hollow bones are fragile and do not preserve well. Usually, only small bone fragments or skulls are found. The recovered fossil allowed paleontologists to study the rest of the reptile's body and may help researchers understand how the creature with an enormous head crest could fly, National Geographic reports.

When researchers at the University of São Paulo received the slabs with the T. navigans skeleton, the team assembled them like a puzzle and placed the pieces in a CT scanner to analyze the bones in greater detail digitally, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN.

Based on the scans, researchers found that the reptile had a long neck, long legs, and short wings, suggesting that it may not have flown for long distances and instead walked more than it flew. The signature head crest accounts for 40 percent of its height, possibly used for attracting mates, may also have limited its flying ability, reports National Geographic.

"This pterosaur was over 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in wingspan and was 1 meter (3.3 feet) tall," says study author Victor Beccari, a University of São Paulo vertebrate paleontologist, to CNN. "With such a tall head crest and a relatively long neck, this animal may have been restricted to short-distance flights."

The team also noted the pterosaur had a notarium, a bone structure that braced the reptile's skeleton against the forces that occur during flight, showing that the reptile did have the ability to fly and may have done so to flee predators, CNN reports.

The fossil is currently on display at São Paulo's Geosciences Museum, according to National Geographic.