Hamipterus tianshanensis
June 6, 2014

Paleontologists Discover New Pterosaur Species, First-Ever 3D Preserved Eggs

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While working at a remarkable fossil site in China, a team of paleontologists has managed to unearth not only the first-ever three-dimensionally preserved pterosaur eggs, but at least dozens of bones representing an entirely new genus and species of the creature as well.

According to research published Thursday in the Cell Press journal Current Biology, the study authors found a population of sexually dimorphic pterosaur species known as Hamipterus tianshanensis at a location discovered nine years ago in the Turpan-Hami Basin, south of the Tian Shan Mountains in Xinjiang, northwestern China.

In addition, they discovered five oblong eggs that were described as “exceptionally well preserved” and said to resemble the eggs of some modern snakes and lizards. Previously, only four pterosaur eggs had ever been discovered, and they had all been flattened by the fossilization process, Will Dunham of Reuters explained.

The scientists also found at least 40 adult individuals of Hamipterus tianshanensis, Dunham added. The team reports that the new species had a wingspan of over 11 feet, pointy teeth for catching fish, and an elongated skull with a crest on top. Zhonghe Zhou, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, called it “the most important pterosaur site ever found.”

“These fossils shed new light on the reproductive strategy, ontogeny, and behavior of pterosaurs,” the authors wrote in the publicly available abstract. “The cranial crests show sexually dimorphic morphologies, with presumed males and females differing in crest size, shape, and robustness… We suggest that this new pterosaur nested in colonies and thus exhibited gregarious behavior, a possible general trend for at least derived pterodactyloid pterosaurs.”

Based on the sediments at the site, the scientists believe that a large colony of the dinosaurs died in the midst of a violent storm, explained Discovery News reporter Jennifer Viegas. Prior to their demise, which likely took place approximately 120 million years ago in the Early Cretaceous period, the pterosaurs were living together near a scenic lake in what Viegas refers to as a colony bustling with social activity.

“That is quite a haul and immediately makes this one of the better represented pterosaurs and makes the area a prime spot for pterosaur research,” said Dr. Dave Hone of the Guardian. “The data is naturally limited at the moment, but the fact that already numerous different individuals and eggs have turned up together is the first on record.”

“There is obviously the potential here for many more animals to be found, and comparable big aggregations of nesting animals are already known for both ancient birds and non-avian dinosaurs,” he added. “It would not at all be a surprise if pterosaurs did something similar, and indeed this has been suggested in various quarters a number of times, so the possibility is there, even if it is currently very tentative.”

Image 2 (below): This is the first three dimensionally preserved pterosaur egg. Credit: Maurilio Oliveira