A treasure trove of newly found pterosaur fossils and eggs is revealing the lives of flying reptiles

Alexander Kellner (Museu Nacional/UFRJ)Paleontologists Xiaolin Wang and Alexander Kellner in the field, collecting new specimens.
  • A new discovery of pterosaur eggs and fossils from the Hamipterus tianshanensis species in China gives us our most complete look at the early flying reptiles.
  • Researchers found at least 215 eggs with at least 16 containing traces of embryos.
  • “We want to call this region ‘Pterosaur Eden.'”

They swooped and whirled across the sky, hunting for fish. Adult pterosaurs of the Hamipterus tianshanensis species had more than 11-foot wingspans and rows of teeth.

But newly-hatched baby pterosaurs couldn’t yet fly, probably didn’t have teeth, and most likely needed care from their parents, according to newly published research appearing in the journal Science.

The new paper announced the discovery of a fantastic treasure trove of fossils and at least 215 Hamipterus tianshanensis pterosaur eggs in China. The findings give researchers some of our first real insights into the early development and reproductive life of the flying reptiles that lived alongside and above the dinosaurs of the early Cretaceous era, approximately 120 million years ago.

Pterosaurs eggs chinaAlexander Kellner (Museu Nacional/UFRJ)Hundreds of pterosaur bones laying on the surface, demonstrating the richness of these sites.

Researchers are thrilled with the findings.

“We want to call this region ‘Pterosaur Eden,'” paleontologist Shunxing Jiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Reuters.

Up until now, scientists had only seen a few pterosaur eggs – three from Argentina and five from China. That wasn’t enough to really help researchers understand how the reptiles developed, biologist D. Charles Deeming wrote in a perspective published alongside the new paper.

Pterosaurs eggs chinaAlexander Kellner (Museu Nacional/UFRJ)Incomplete pterosaur lower jaw of a young animal.

“The work is a crucial advance in understanding pterosaur reproduction,” he wrote.

Adult and juvenile fossils from males and females were also discovered at the site in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Researchers found embryonic remains inside at least 16 of the eggs, which helps show how the reptiles grew. Little ones had less developed characteristics related to flight, which is why the researchers think they were probably unable to take off.

Finding the huge collection together is an indication that these early reptiles, which were the first flying vertebrates on Earth, lived or at least nested in colonies, perhaps like sea turtles do now. The authors wrote in the study, however, that no actual nest has been found yet.

A storm likely washed the eggs and other pterosaurs into a nearby lake, where they were fossilized.

The eggs themselves had soft, parchment-like shells.

Pterosaurs eggs chinaWang et al., Science (2017)Pterosaur eggs, preserved.

Because of the number of fossils found here, this species of pterosaur is now the one we have the most complete picture of, but questions remain, according to Deeming. We still don’t know if the eggs were buried in sand or vegetation or why they appeared dehydrated.

“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,” he wrote.

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