Archaeologists working in China have discovered a cache of hundreds of eggs that could provide new insight into the development and nesting behavior of pterosaurs, a new study published in the journal Science reports.
Pterosaurs were ancient flying reptiles that co-existed with dinosaurs during the Lower Cretaceous period. The team believes the species analyzed in the study — Hamipterus tianshanensis — grew up to 13 feet long and likely feasted on fish with its large, teeth-filled jaws.
Scientists collected the fossilized eggs from the Turpan-Hami Basin in northwestern China over a 10 year period between 2006 and 2016. One uncovered sandstone block held 215 well-preserved eggs, 16 of which still have embryonic remains. In fact, there are so many fossils in the area that scientists call it “Pterosaur Eden.”
This discovery is significant because, before the research, scientists had only ever found six well-preserved pterosaur eggs. The 16 fossilized embryos from the new research are at different stages of growth, revealing new information about how the reptiles developed.
The team used computed tomography scanning to peer inside the eggs, and the research has added to the debate about whether or not pterosaurs could fly from when they hatched. The scans showed the animals’ hind leg bones were more developed than the wings at the time of hatching, and none of the embryos were found with teeth.
“Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general … and probably needed some parental care,” the team noted in their research, according to NPR.
However, there is not yet enough information to make any definitive conclusions about how the reptiles operated right after they hatched. Even so, the large amount of eggs found so close together suggests that pterosaurs may have bred in colonies. Researchers found no nest at the site, which means the eggs were likely moved to the region by natural phenomena after they were laid.
This discovery sheds new light on the ancient species, but there is still more to find. The team hopes further findings in the region will give them answers about if the eggs were buried as they developed or how many were in each clutch.
“Hopefully additional finds of equally spectacular fossils will help us answer such questions,” Charles Deeming, a researcher at the University of Lincoln, wrote in an accompanying article in the journal Science, according to Phys.org.