The Importance of the Hampiterus Tianshanesis Egg Clutch Discovery

In November 2017 Palaeontologists in north-western China unveiled a remarkable Pterosaur discovery of hundreds of perfectly preserved eggs from the early Cretaceous. This article will look at this fossil find and explore three reasons why it should be considered one of the most important prehistoric discoveries of recent times.

So 2018 has begun and given the vast amount of fossil finds in 2017 you can guarantee that 2018 will be just as productive for scientists and Palaeontologists. In December 2017 the Guardian published an article on the top fossil discoveries of 2017, although one recent fossil discovery the month before did not make their list. Whether this was because the Guardian already had covered the fossil discovery here in this article and didn’t think it warranted further examination or they thought the other fossil finds that year were more important is questionable. For me though the finding of hundreds of intact Pterosaur eggs in November 2017 (from Hampiterus tianshanensis) was a truly exciting discovery and it was one of which that shocked and excited the Paleontological world.

Pterosaurs were flying reptiles and not Dinosaurs. Their name means “winged lizard” and they ruled the skies over the Dinosaurs from the time of the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous from 229 million to 66 million years ago.

Hamipterus
Hamipterus tianshanensis life restoration. Image credit: Chuang Zhao, 2017 via Sci-Fi News

Hamipterus tianshanensis was officially announced as a new Pterosaur in 2014. These Pterosaur fossils were found in the Tugulu formation in the North West of China. They were described as being from the Early Cretaceous, standing over 4 feet tall with a wingspan from 4 feet to over 11 feet in length. 40 Pterosaur specimens were found in total with both the males and females displaying sexually dimorphic traits such as differences in their crest shape and size. Along with this discovery there were also five well preserved eggs but this was nothing like the egg discovery that would occur in 2017 (Wang et al, 2014).

The thrilling Hamipterus tianshanensis egg clutch discovery was first announced in Science on November 30th 2017 and many Science websites and news agencies picked up the story such as the National Geographic, Phys.org and BBC News to name just a few.

Some 200-300 perfectly preserved eggs were found with 16 of these containing preserved Hamipterus tianshanensis embryos. Palaeontologist David Hone (2017) who wasn’t involved in the findings wrote in the National Geographic that the discovery was a monumental find and potentially research changing for Palaeontology.

Hones statement echoed what many Palaeontologists were feeling at the time. Pure excitement and disbelief. The fact that such a discovery was possible, especially finding the remains of 16 Pterosaur embryos at the same site. For many Palaeontologists hearing the words “Big Pterosaur egg clutch find” was music to the scientific ears, and goes to show that new prehistoric breakthroughs really can shock the scientific world.

Pterosaur egg fossils
Hamipterus fossil site, in north-western China, has also yielded hundreds of pterosaur bones. Image credit: Alexander Kellner, Museu Nacional, UFRJ, 2017 via National Geographic 

So here are my three reasons why this fossil discovery should be considered one of the most important Paleontological discoveries of recent times:

1. The discovery of the 200-300 hundred Pterosaur eggs together in a nested colony is a world first and suggests that Hamipterus tianshanensis might have cared for their young much like birds do today.

2. The finding of preserved Pterosaur embryos in 16 of the eggs at the same site has never happened before and could help Palaeontologists chart Pterosaur growth from an early age right up to adulthood.

3. Given the conditions that enabled these eggs to be perfectly preserved and fossilized in the Tugulu formation it is likely there could be many more eggs and potential embryos still to be found, which is a very exciting prospect.

These three reasons above for me are some of the most important implications of this egg clutch find. So little is known about Pterosaur reproduction and parental care that this discovery might finally help Palaeontologists breakdown how Hamipterus tianshanensis nested, how it reproduced and what life was like during for newly hatched Pterosaurs during the the Cretaceous. Most of the time Palaeontologists have to base extinct animal behaviour theories on animal behaviours that we see today but with this concrete finding of a Pterosaur egg colony more research can take place to understand Pterosaur parental care and nesting habits.

Pterosaur eggs and bone
The Fossilized Pterosaur eggs and bones found at the site. Image credit Wang et al, 2017 via The New York Times

The finding of fossilized egg embryos is particularly exciting because for the first time Palaeontologists will be able to examine and compare each fossilized Pterosaur embryo. This will allow much further research into Pterosaur growth patterns and the understanding of Pterosaur embryonic development. Who knows maybe inside the eggs they might contain soft tissues of the embryos development? It’s a very intriguing prospect, making this discovery one of the most important of Paleontological discoveries in recent years.

Unlike previous Pterosaur finds the research in the Tugulu formation in north-western China is also inherently special because the eggs were found in a perfectly preserved state opening up the possibility for further excavations and similar discoveries in the same Geological area. Hopefully it won’t be long before Palaeontologists in China unveil more Paleontological game changing Pterosaur research about the Cretaceous lives of Hamipterus tianshanensis.

hampiterus tianshanensis
Illustration of Hampiterus tianshanensis feeding its young. Image credit: Chuang Zhao, 2017 via ScienceMag.org

I hope you have found this article very interesting! I have certainly found the research fascinating. The remaining blog posts this year will be focusing on 2018 fossil discoveries as well as the Paleontological Museum volunteering I have been doing which I hope to be able to share with you this March.

References

 

Xiaolin Wang; Alexander W.A. Kellner; Shunxing Jiang; Qiang Wang; Yingxia Ma; Yahefujiang Paidoula; Xin Cheng; Taissa Rodrigues; Xi Meng; Jialiang Zhang; Ning Li; Zhonghe Zhou (2014). “Sexually dimorphic tridimensionally preserved pterosaurs and their eggs from China“. Current Biology. 24 (12): 1323–1330. http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(14)00525-9 [Accessed 9th January 2018]

 

Hone D, (2017) Hundreds of Pterosaur Eggs Found in Record-Breaking Fossil Haul  [online], National Geographic.com, Available from:          https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/largest-pterosaurs-eggs-discovered-embryos-fossils-paleontology-science/ [Accessed 9th January 2018]

 

 

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