Hundreds of eggs belonging to a species of flying reptile that lived alongside dinosaurs are giving scientists a peek into the earliest development of the animals.
The find includes at least 16 partial embryos, several still preserved in 3-D. Those embryos suggest that the animals were able to walk, but not fly, soon after hatching, researchers report in the Dec. 1 Science.
Led by vertebrate paleontologist Xiaolin Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the scientists uncovered at least 215 eggs in a block of sandstone about 3 meters square. All of the eggs belonged to one species of pterosaur, Hamipterus tianshanensis, which lived in the early Cretaceous Period about 120 million years ago in what is now northwestern China.
Previously, researchers have found only a handful of eggs belonging to the winged reptiles, including five eggs from the same site in China (SN: 7/12/14, p. 20) and two more found in Argentina. One of the Argentinian eggs also contained a flattened but well-preserved embryo.
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One reason for the dearth of fossils may be that the eggs were rather soft with a thin outer shell, unlike the hard casings of eggs belonging to dinosaurs, birds and crocodiles but similar to those of modern-day lizards. Due to that soft shape, pterosaur eggs also tend to flatten during preservation. Finding fossilized eggs containing 3-D embryos opens a new window into pterosaur development, says coauthor Alexander Kellner, a vertebrate paleontologist at Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.
The eggs weren’t found at an original nesting site but had been jumbled and deformed, probably transported by a flood during an intense storm, Kellner says. Sand and other sediments carried by the water would then have rapidly buried the soft eggs, which was necessary to preserve them, Kellner says. “Otherwise, they would have decomposed.”Using computerized tomography, the researchers scanned the internal contents of the eggs. Two of the best-preserved embryos revealed a tantalizing clue to pterosaur development, Kellner says. A key part of a wing bone, called the deltopectoral crest, was not fully developed in the embryos, even in an embryo the researchers interpret as nearly at term. The femur, or leg bone, of the embryo, however, was well developed. This suggests that, when born, the hatchlings could walk but not yet fly and may have still required some parental care for feeding, the scientists propose.
Such an interpretation requires an abundance of caution, says D. Charles Deeming, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Lincoln in England not involved in the study. For example, he says, there isn’t enough evidence to say for certain that the embryo in question was nearly at term and, therefore, to say that it couldn’t fly when born, a point he also raises in a column published in the same issue of Science. “There’s a real danger of overinterpretation.” But with such a large group of eggs, he says, researchers can make quantitative measurements to better understand the range of egg sizes and shapes to get a sense of variation in animal size.
Kellner says this work is ongoing and agrees that there is still a significant amount of study to be done on these and other eggs more recently found at the site. And the hunt is on for more concentrations of eggs in the same site. “Now that we know what they look like, we can go back and find more. You just have to get your knees down and look.”