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Brazilian researchers discover fossil precursor of pterosaurs

Discovery was published in the scientific journal Nature.

Researchers from the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM) discovered in the municipality of São João do Polêsine, in Rio Grande do Sul, a fossil that is part of the precursor group of pterosaurs, or flying reptiles. “Except that this [discovered] animal was not flying”, Rodrigo Temp Müller, leader of the group, leader of the group’s leader, Rodrigo Temp Müller, told Agência Brasil this Wednesday (16) to Agência Brasil.

The discovery was published in today’s edition of the scientific journal Nature, which represents, according to Müller, a very important achievement for Brazil, in terms of science in general. “There are few studies from Brazil that were published in it [Nature], the most important journal in the academic world”.

In the same place, fossils of primitive dinosaurs, relatives of crocodiles with dermal plates, other precursors of pterosaurs and herbivorous reptiles called rhynchosaurs have already been found.

Müller explained that until then there was little information about the anatomy of these animals, mainly the skull and hands, and highlighted that “this discovered material brings a lot of new information”. The researchers found that it would have a raptorial beak, reminiscent of today’s birds of prey, “which is something totally unexpected in those animals.” The hands are proportionately large, with well-developed claws.

Scientists estimate that these claws could be used to climb trees or handle prey. The paleontologist pointed out that this is the best-preserved fossil of a pterosaur precursor.

“Now, for the first time in history, we are getting a clearer view of what these primitive forms of pterosaurs were. It is a very important fossil, because it shows where pterosaurs appeared. Until then, it was very muddy. We didn’t have a clear idea of what they were like. And now we can see it.”

According to the Cappa/UFSM team, dinosaurs and pterosaurs are some of the most popular fossil organisms, having dominated the Earth during the Mesozoic Era for approximately 165 million years, becoming extinct 66 million years ago, after the impact of a huge asteroid.


Descoberta de fóssil precursor dos pterossauros. Fóssil de Venetoraptor Gassenae. Foto: Janaína Brand Dillmann

Combining data from this fossil with other precursors of pterosaurs and dinosaurs from elsewhere in the world, Müller reported that paleontologists were able to quantify the morphological diversity of these precursors.

“And, quantifying, we noticed that it is higher than that of dinosaurs from the Triassic period and equals that of pterosaurs. It’s interesting because it shows that the idea that primitive shapes were simple, not very complex, falls through the cracks. Because we see that, in fact, there is a great diversity when these animals were emerging, which we did not know until then.”

Under the leadership of Rodrigo Temp Müller, the study also involved scientists Martín D. Ezcurra, Federico L. Agnolín and Fernando E. Novas, from the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia, Argentina; Mauricio S. Garcia, from UFSM; Michelle R. Stocker and Sterling J. Nesbitt, from Virginia Tech, Virginia, USA; in Marina B. Soares and Alexander W. A. Kellner, from the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

“We needed more data from other animals to develop more in-depth analyzes and be able to place the fossil in a broader evolutionary context”, said Rodrigo Temp Müller. Replicas of the fossil, called Venetoraptor gassenae, will be made for display at institutions participating in the study.

Venetoraptor means the Vale Vêneto raptor, in reference to a tourist location called Vale Vêneto, in the municipality of São João do Polêsine. The name gassenae honors Valserina Maria Bulegon Gassen, one of the main responsible for the creation of Cappa/UFSM.

Sculptures of the fossil’s skeleton are already at the UFSM research center and in Argentina. Another replica of the skeleton’s bones will be donated to the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, which, in return, will donate a living replica of the new species. The director of the National Museum, Alexander Kellner, highlighted the importance of participating in the study, “including the fact that there is an exchange of replicas that will be on display both at our institution and at Cappa”.


Descoberta de fóssil precursor dos pterossauros. Fotos do local da escavação – Buriol Site (São João do Polêsine, Brazil). Foto: Janaína Brand Dillmann

Venetoraptor gassenae is unique in the world, although it has close relatives in other places, such as Argentina and the United States. But they are not so well preserved. You couldn’t see much of the skeleton in them, Müller said. The researchers will continue to do fieldwork at this site to see if they find more individuals of the same species or other parts of the fossil’s skeleton.

The precursor to the pterosaur would have been one meter long and would have weighed between four and eight kilograms. Scientists discovered that the animal did not fly by studying the anatomy of its forelimb, which would not support a membrane, or leather, that forms the wing.

According to paleontologist Rodrigo Temp Müller, the discovery reinforces the idea that Brazil is managing to produce cutting-edge science, as well as developed countries. “It is important to show that, in the midst of everything, Brazil manages to do research. Hence the importance of funding research here in the country”

The study was funded by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), the Research Support Foundation of the State of Rio Grande do Sul (Fapergs), the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes), the Carlos Chagas Foundation Son of Amparo à Pesquisa do Rio de Janeiro (Faperj), the National Agency for Scientific and Technical Promotion and the Paleontological Society.

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