“Extraordinary.” “Stellar.” “Truly awesome.” “A world-class find.”
That’s how paleontologists are reacting to the discovery of several hundred ridiculously well-preserved pterosaur eggs in China, some of them still containing the remains of embryos.
“My first thought was extreme jealousy,” said David Unwin, a pterosaur expert and paleobiologist at the University of Leicester. “Really.”
To understand why Unwin and others are freaking out about the discovery, published Thursday in the journal Science, you have to first appreciate how rare pterosaur eggs are.
The pterosaurs were an order of flying reptiles that went extinct some 66 million years ago. They were not actually dinosaurs, but they went extinct at the same time. Along with bats and birds, they are the only vertebrates to truly fly. And though these creatures lorded over the skies for around 162 million years, only a handful of pterosaur egg fossils have ever been unearthed. And of those, paleontologists have just six three-dimensional eggs – that is, eggs not completely flattened by millions of years of being crushed under younger sediments.
But now, we have a pterosaur egg extravaganza. According to the new research, a site in China’s Turpan-Hami Basin in Xinjiang has coughed up 215 beautiful, pliable and miraculously three-dimensional eggs – 16 of which contain embryonic remains. The researchers also suspect there could be as many as 300 more eggs within the same sandstone block. No wonder Xiaolin Wang, the study’s lead author and a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the discovery could be described as a sort of “pterosaur Eden.”
Aside from breaking records, Unwin said there are practical reasons for why having more eggs is better. “When you have a really unique find, you basically can’t do anything to it because that’s all you’ve got.” But now that we have literally hundreds of eggs to work with, we have more options – such as cutting different eggs into cross-sections to study growth rates.
What’s more, the egg treasure trove also boasts skeletons from what appear to be hatchlings, juveniles and adults. This, too, is an embarrassment of riches because it means scientists now have more information about how pterosaurs progressed from egg to adult than ever before.
“This is by far the most exciting discovery that I know of,” said Alexander Kellner, co-author of the new study and paleontologist at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
And Kellner isn’t some newbie to pterosaur discoveries. He’s been studying these ancient animals for more than 30 years and has personally been a part of naming or describing more than 20 species. This includes the species in question, Hamipterus tianshanensis, which Kellner, Wang and a team of their colleagues discovered in 2014.
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With a wingspan of approximately 11 feet, an adult H. tianshanensis may have been something like an albatross. You know, if albatrosses had large crests running the lengths of their heads and spikelike teeth. This species does not appear to have had feathers, Kellner said.
Probably a fish-eater, H. tianshanensis inhabited hot and dry environments but would have buried its eggs in the sand and vegetation found on the shores of lakes or rivers. This is also likely why so many eggs have been found together. Kellner suspects recent storms caused torrential flooding which unearthed the eggs and washed them into the fossil record, along with other, older pterosaurs that fell victim to the deluge.
While all four of the outside researchers contacted for this story seemed genuinely wowed by the team’s findings, they did not agree with all of the conclusions the study’s authors drew from the fossils.
The paper says that H. tianshanensis hatchlings wouldn’t have been able to fly immediately because several of the eggs the team examined showed wing bones that were less developed than expected. This may have meant that baby pterosaurs would have spent some time on the ground hunting insects and generally trying not to be eaten before learning how to take wing. Kellner even speculated that the pterosaur females and maybe even males would have stuck around to feed the hatchlings to help get them through such a precarious stage.
My first thought was extreme jealousy. Really
This news has been published by title Paleontologists Discover The Mother Lode — 215 Miraculously Well Preserved Pterosaur Eggs
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