Research carried out by Brazilian experts concluded that the Faxinalipterus minimus, from Triassic rocks, about 25 million years old, found in Rio Grande do Sul, it is not a winged reptile, as thought. The study, by researchers from the National Museum, the federal universities of Santa Maria, Regional do Cariri, Federal do Pampa, Federal do Rio Grande do Sul and the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute of Graduate Studies and Engineering Research (Coppe/UFRJ), was featured prominently in the scientific journal PeerJ.
The most important part of the work, according to the director of the National Museum (MN), of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Alexander Kellner, is to prove that the institution is alive “and that, thanks to researchers and partnerships, it manages to produce quality science. The discovery made now is important because it touches on ideas about the evolution of reptile flight, Kellner said. He reinforced the need to invest in basic science, because that is how researchers manage to produce.
In 2010, a group of scientists, led by José Fernando Bonaparte, one of the main paleontologists studying fossil reptiles in Latin America, who died in 2020, described two specimens collected previously, in 2002 and 2005. called Faxinalipterus minimuswhich were believed to be a winged reptile, a pterosaur, which are the first vertebrates adapted to active flight and relatives of dinosaurs.
“The first reptile from the Brazilian Triassic, 225 million years ago, would be a very important discovery,” said Kellner, a specialist in flying reptiles. So he went to see the material collected. Upon examination, however, he immediately recognized that it was not a pterosaur, that is, a winged reptile. “I raised the problem, that I had to put these two specimens – an upper arch and a postcranial skeleton – in the same group that seemed not to be. In other words, I thought they were two different species”, said the director. Kellner noted that several bones could be misidentified and there was a lack of diagnostic features of pterosaurs, including the absence of specific features on the humerus (arm bone), such as a projecting deltopectoral crest.
The material was prepared in detail before further studies were carried out, and other researchers were invited to participate in the project. One of the members of the group recalled that the staff from the Centro de Apoio à Pesquisa Paleontológica da Quarta Colônia (Cappa), at the Federal University of Santa Maria, has been working in this region. The researchers were invited to participate in the study. “They had, within the material recently collected, a skull, part of the head of an animal very similar to one of those specimens”. From there, they redescribed the Faxinalipterus minimus and proposed a new species of reptile, the Maehary Bonapartei, of small dimensions, considered the most basal of the evolutionary line that gave rise to pterosaurs. “Our work went beyond redescription, and we found that the two would be classified in the evolutionary line of pterosaurs.”
According to Alexander Kellner, the discovery shows that if you invest in scientific research, “Brazil has very good capabilities, people who do very important work. It is enough to encourage basic research, which is so abandoned in the country”. From a scientific point of view, the important thing is to show that there is an interesting deposit in that region of the Linha São Luiz fossiliferous site, located in the municipality of Faxinal do Soturno (RS), which may provide more specimens of these small animals, classified on the basis of origin. of the winged reptiles, the pterosaurs.
Kellner said the study “will allow us to better understand how these animals learned to fly, what changes took place for them to finally take flight.” According to Kellner, this demonstrates that the area is very important and that it is necessary to continue working on research. “The work will be cited a lot because it is relevant to this whole discussion of the origin of vertebrate flight,” he added.
The idea is that the collaboration started in the research will continue. “The people at Capa are doing a very serious, very good job, and we would really like to continue working with them in the discovery of other fantastic specimens, such as the Maehary Bonapartei.
The preparation of the original material was carried out at the National Museum. “Fortunately, we were able to photograph the entire specimen in detail,” said Orlando Grillo, who took care to reproduce, in the form of drawings, every anatomical detail of the bones of the faxinalipterus. With the help of a CT scanner, the riddle was revealed. “Computed tomography has been an increasingly used tool in paleontological studies”, observed Ricardo Lopes, from Coppe/UFRJ. “It is a non-destructive analysis, which allows the visualization of anatomical details still covered by the sedimentary rock where the fossil is preserved”, added Olga Araújo, also from Coppe.
At the Linha de São Luiz site, several fossils have already been found, such as close relatives of mammals, dinosaurs and other reptiles. The region where the excavations were carried out is located in the territory of the Quarta Colônia Aspirante Unesco Geopark.
The genus name of the new species comes from Ma’eharyan expression of the Guarani-Kaiowa people that means “who looks at the sky”, in allusion to their position in the evolutionary line of reptiles, being the most primitive of the pterosauromorpha group that includes pterosaurs.