Fossilised eggs shed light on reign of pterosaurs

01 Décembre, 2017, 02:48 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Science Image Source eden

The fossils formed about 120 million years ago when disaster struck a group of pterosaurs.

The 16 fossilized embryos are at different stages of growth, revealing new information about how the reptiles developed.

There's still an ongoing debate about the validity of that theory, but one thing's for sure: we've never had such a good view of how pterosaurs progressed from eggs to adulthood.

"Although most eggs are complete, small fissures resulting from decomposition and compression during burial must have occurred because all eggs are filled with sandstone, which ultimately accounts for their three-dimensionality". While we've learned quite a bit about them from the fossil record, egg findings have been extremely scarce. Credit: Wang et al., Science (2017).

A research team led by Xiaolin Wang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing discovered the eggs, embedded in a rock slab more than three square meters in area, at a dig in northwestern China. This species existed during the Lower Cretaceous geological period, so sometime between 145 million years ago and 100 million years ago.

The cool part: The eggs, though they survived this long, are delicate. The researchers counted 215 eggs but there may be up to 300, given how the eggs are piled on top of each other. Pterosaurs were the first ever vertebrates to take to the skies - though why, how, and for how long they did this, remain unsolved mysteries. Credits: Alexander Kellner/Museu Nacional/UFRJ.

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Because their eggs lacked this protective armor, pterosaurs probably buried their eggs so that they could stay warm and moist.

However, many questions remain, including whether the size of each clutch was really two as previous studies have suggested, just how the pterosaurs concealed their eggs, whether beneath vegetation or sand or soil and why so numerous eggs appear dehydrated.

"Appropriate nesting environments may have been rare, forcing pterosaurs to adopt colonial nesting through necessity-but it was not without risk", he wrote.

Example of fossilized pterosaur eggs. There may be even more of them, but scientists haven't had time to properly analyze all the eggs, and CT scans are only partially useful.

For example, some of the joints and wing bones were underdeveloped, while the femurs (their leg bones) looked pretty strong - meaning that when they hatched, these baby pterosaurs probably hopped around and were not ready for flight.

"Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general. and probably needed some parental care", the paper reads. But the new results imply that these prehistoric flying reptiles' parenting duties may have been significantly more involved. Deeming wrote. "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".

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