(CN) — A rare, smuggled fossil seized in a police raid in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is helping researchers learn more about pterosaurs, a group of crested, flying reptiles that lived 115 million years ago.
The fossil was diverted from an illegal sale — likely to a private collector or an unsuspecting museum in Europe or the U.S. — when police found it hidden in the ceiling of a warehouse near the port in the South American city in 2012, said Victor Beccari, a University of Sao Paulo researcher who co-wrote a study of the limestone-encased complete skeleton.
“It was about to be sold illegally,” Beccari said. “It’s a fossil we would lose to either a private collector or a museum that Brazilians would not have access to. For once, this beautiful fossil is on exhibition in a public institution.” The University of Sao Paulo took possession of the fossil in 2015.
The four-foot tall animal lived during the Early Cretaceous period about 115 million years ago, when South America was beginning to separate from Africa. At the time, a large lake existed between the continents. The pterosaur lived along the shore of the lake, Beccari said.
Before the police found the fossil, smugglers had ground away some of the sediment encasing the bones and cut the four-foot slab into six sections, which turned out to be a partial win. The procedure ground away some vertebra bone, but the slices allowed researchers to look at the bones in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“We would never cut it, but in a way it kind of helped us to see a little bit more, to peek into the sediment using X-rays,” Beccari said.
Based on the anatomy and knowledge gained from similar species, the scientists believe the animal foraged in the forest for fruit and “hard” plant material such as seeds and pinecones.
“Much like a parrot nowadays,” Beccari said.
The research was published Wednesday in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal.
The wingspan of the animal was about 9 feet, ranking it somewhere in the middle between the one-foot wingspan of Nemicolopterus crypticus to the 30-foot wingspans of Quetalcoatlus northopi, which was found in North America.
Northwest Brazil is rich with fossils, including pterosaurs, Beccari said.
“There are many species described there, many fossils there, but none of them are as complete as this one,” he said. “This one has the skull and the post-cranial soft tissue is preserved, which is usually the first thing to decay.”
Within few days, soft tissues are usually beyond preservation, because bacteria break down the flesh. This animal died in a very salty lake, sinking to the bottom where the water had very little oxygen. Bacteria that normally break down flesh need oxygen, and without it the pterosaur lay undisturbed until it was covered in silt and eventually fossilized.
Pterosaurs similar to this one are commonly found in China, Europe and Africa. The group is characterized by a huge fleshy crest on top of the head, which is supported by a thin bone sticking up from the forehead. The crest is 40% of the animal’s height, Beccari said.
Scientists are very lucky to have the specimen, which could have ended up in the black market or in the legal fossil trade, which can price out small museums. Fossil sales are legal in the U.S., though not for smuggled ones, and private collectors have deep pockets.
That raises the incentive for smuggling, which trickles all the way down to quarry workers in Brazil, who can sell one fossil on the black market and earn several month’s wages, Beccari said.
U.S. authorities regularly intercept illegal fossils aimed for the U.S. market.
In recent years, fossils have been returned to China, Iraq and Argentina, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website. A Wyoming artifact dealer who was selling smuggled fossils was fined $25,000 and sentenced to two years of probation.
Next, Beccari and his colleagues will further study the biomechanics of the pterosaur to determine its feeding habits and flight ability. Co-authors on the study include Felipe Lima Pinheiro, Ivan Nunes, Luiz Eduardo Anelli, Octavio Mateus, and Fabiana Rodrigues Costa.
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