Hey, budding screenwriters! Does your script about dinosaur DNA being used to bring them back to life to exact revenge against humans for destroying the planet they once cared for and loved need a Jurassic spark? Well, here’s your new plot twist. Paleontologists in China have discovered hundreds of well-preserve pterosaur eggs, with at least 16 containing partial embryos. Will flying lizards darken our skies once again? Should dogs and cats be nervous?
“We want to call this region ‘Pterosaur Eden.’”
That perfect line to open a movie comes from paleontologist Shunxing Jiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (try fitting that on a business card), the lead author of the study (published in the journal Science), as he described the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region site where at least 215 eggs were found in a block of sandstone. Those eggs all belonged to a single species of pterosaur, Hamipterus tianshanensis, which flew over what is now northwestern China during the early Cretaceous Period, 120 million years ago.
The eggs were discovered in 2014 by a team of paleontogists which included pterosaur expert Alexander Kellner, a co-author of the new study and paleontologist at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who recognized that this cache was from a new species which he named Hamipterus tianshanensis. The fossils indicated to Kellner that this pterosaur had an adult wingspan of 11 feet, spiked teeth and no feathers. They also showed that H. tianshanensis buried its eggs in lake shores and river banks.
However, the eggs found in ‘Pterosaur Eden’ were not buried there by the parent pterosaurs but by storms and floods which washed them, along with hatched through adult creatures, to the site where they were found in a fossilized jumble of broken bones and eggs. Fortunately, this sandstone block of the eggs survived intact, waiting 120 million years until 3D scanning was perfected.
While the embryos were unfortunately jumbled about inside the eggs, those scans showed that, had they hatched, their legs were developed enough that they would have been able to walk immediately, but underdeveloped wing bones indicated that flight would take a little time. The embryos were toothless, another surprise since it was believed that they were born bite-ready, but their fast growth meant teeth and flight wings were ready pretty quickly after hatching.
Will the next film about pterosaurs being cloned be fiction or a documentary? Unfortunately, this particular find was all fossils and no flesh, so there was no DNA suitable for cloning. That doesn’t take away from the magnitude of this discovery, since the fragility of eggs means that very few from dinosaurs and pterosaurs (which were not dinosaurs) have survived. The researchers believe this site will eventually yield more of the 3 inch (7.2cm) long H. tianshanensis eggs. Will one contain an intact pterosaur suitable for cloning? Speaking like a true paleontologist, Kellner is hopeful.
“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.”
That’s all the help you get for now, budding screenwriters. Get your fingers down and write.