A treasure trove of newly found pterosaur fossils and eggs is revealing the lives of flying reptiles

  • A new discovery of pterosaur eggs and fossils from the Hamipterus tianshanensis species in China gives us our most complete look at the early flying reptiles.
  • Researchers found at least 215 eggs with at least 16 containing traces of embryos.
  • "We want to call this region 'Pterosaur Eden.'"

They swooped and whirled across the sky, hunting for fish. Adult pterosaurs of the Hamipterus tianshanensis species had more than 11-foot wingspans and rows of teeth.

But newly-hatched baby pterosaurs couldn't yet fly, probably didn't have teeth, and most likely needed care from their parents, according to newly published research appearing in the journal Science.

The new paper announced the discovery of a fantastic treasure trove of fossils and at least 215 Hamipterus tianshanensis pterosaur eggs in China. The findings give researchers some of our first real insights into the early development and reproductive life of the flying reptiles that lived alongside and above the dinosaurs of the early Cretaceous era, approximately 120 million years ago.

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Largest collection of fossilized pterosaur eggs ever found
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Largest collection of fossilized pterosaur eggs ever found
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows Chinese scientist Wang Xiaolin (C) taking a photo as he inspects the terrain in Hami, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows a fossilised pterosaur bone (top) and an egg displayed at a museum in Hami, northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows part of a fossilised pterosaur skull displayed at a museum in Hami, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows fossilised pterosaur bones found in the Gobi Desert at a museum in Hami, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows a fossilised egg displayed at a museum in Hami, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows Chinese scientist Wang Xiaolin (front) investigating the ground in Hami, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows a fossilised pterosaur bone found at the Gobi Desert in a museum in Hami, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on November 30, 2017 shows a fossilised pterosaur mandible displayed at a museum in Hami, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Region. Scientists have peered inside the largest collection of fossilised pterosaur eggs ever found, using 3D scans to reveal new insights into these flying cousins of dinosaurs, researchers said on December 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / - / China OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
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Researchers are thrilled with the findings.

"We want to call this region 'Pterosaur Eden,'" paleontologist Shunxing Jiang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Reuters.

Up until now, scientists had only seen a few pterosaur eggs — three from Argentina and five from China. That wasn't enough to really help researchers understand how the reptiles developed, biologist D. Charles Deeming wrote in a perspective published alongside the new paper.

"The work is a crucial advance in understanding pterosaur reproduction," he wrote.

Adult and juvenile fossils from males and females were also discovered at the site in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Researchers found embryonic remains inside at least 16 of the eggs, which helps show how the reptiles grew. Little ones had less developed characteristics related to flight, which is why the researchers think they were probably unable to take off.

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Fossil and skeletal discoveries throughout history
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Fossil and skeletal discoveries throughout history

French custom officials present July 6 six of 315 fossilized dinosaur bird eggs seized recently from a container ship from Madagascar and which had transited via the British port of Felixstowe. The fossilized eggs, five or six times larger than an ostrich egg and weigh nearly 12 kg, belong to the flightless bird 'Aepyornis Maximus' species commonly know as 'Elephant Bird'. The eggs have a unit value of 10,000 French francs ($1,560), making the total value of nearly a half million dollars. The shipment of fossilized eggs were destined for a Paris company specialized in collectors in France and northern Europe. Two people are being held for questioning by custom officials.

(Reuters Photographer / Reuters) 

Bill Simpson looks inside a fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex known as "SUE", before removing its forelimb to be used for research at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., October 6, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

A man cleans a fossil of a mother and baby in Taichung City, Taiwan, April 26, 2016 in this still image taken from video.

(REUTERS/via Reuters TV)

The fossils of the newly-discovered prehistoric pterosaur (front) and a model of its head are displayed at Rio's Federal University Museum in Rio de Janeiro, March 20, 2013. According to Brazilian scientists, the specimen is referred to as Tropeognathus cf. T. mesembrinus, and it is the largest known pterosaur recovered from Gondwana, the name given to the more southerly of the two supercontinents which were part of the Pangaea supercontinent in the past.

(REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes)

Dr. Martin Pickford displays a sub-complete skull of a fossil ape found in Karamoja region, northeast of Uganda's capital Kampala, during a news conference in Kampala August 2, 2011. Ugandan and French scientists have discovered a fossil of a skull of a tree-climbing ape from about 20 million years ago in Uganda's Karamoja region, the team said on Tuesday.

(REUTERS/Stringer)

Gerald McSorley holds up a Jurassic fossil, clearly showing four prefectly preserved vertebrae, complete with spinal cord and blood vessels, which he found on the shores of Loch Ness, at his home in Stirling in Scotland, July 16, 2003. Though experts have stressed that the find is not related to the original Loch Ness monster - the remains of the plesiosaur (a long-necked, carnivorous sea reptile) are around 150 million years old and Loch Ness did not exist until the last Ice Age around 12,000 years ago - they say the find is evidence that the 35-foot-long creature once existed in the area.

(REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell)

Gustavo Lara, Director of Culture of the town of Roque Perez, holds part of a femur bone of a glyptodont, a kind of large armadillo, at an excavation site on the outskirts of Roque Perez, some 84 miles south of Buenos Aires, May 6, 2009. Fossil bones of nine glossopteris, a glyptodont, the nearly complete skeleton of a megatherium and a head of a stegomastodon dating from the Pleistocene, the epoch from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, were found by paleontologists in the sediments of the Salado River due to a drought that has been affecting the area for months, local media reported.

(REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci)

Chilean paleontologist Consuelo Huidobro looks on at a mastodon's fossilized remains at the rural Padre Hurtado municipality near Santiago March 24, 2011. The remains of the mastodon were discovered on the banks of the Mapocho river during the construction of a water treatment plant, local media reported. It is believed that mastodons inhabited earth some 15,000 years ago.

(REUTERS/Luis Hidalgo)

An unearthed mastodon's fossilized remains are pictured at the rural Padre Hurtado municipality near Santiago March 11, 2011. The remains of the mastodon were discovered on the banks of the Mapocho river during the construction of a water treatment plant, local media reported. It is believed that mastodons inhabited earth some 15,000 years ago. Picture taken March 11, 2011.

(REUTERS/Archaeological team/Handout)

Brazilian paleontologist Alexander Kellner shows the fossils and a model of the newly-discovered prehistoric pterosaur to journalists during its presentation at Rio's Federal University Museum in Rio de Janeiro, March 20, 2013. According to Brazilian scientists, the specimen is referred to as Tropeognathus cf. T. mesembrinus, and it is the largest known pterosaur fossils recovered from Gondwana, the name given to the more southerly of the two supercontinents which were part of the Pangaea supercontinent in the past.

(REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes)

Visitors look at the skeleton of an Apatosaurus named "Einstein" displayed at the Lewis hall in Fundidora park in Monterrey, northern Mexico, September 23, 2009. Einstein, a 75 foot, 4.5 tonne skeleton of an Apatosaurus, was found in 2005 in Dana Quarry, Wyoming, United States, and is the first major dinosaur whose skull has been found intact. With 85 percent of its skeleton being original, the exhibit is considered the most complete and articulated Apatosaurus known in the world, according to the organizers.

(REUTERS/Tomas Bravo)

A detailed view of the hands or claws of Trix the female T-Rex exhibition at the Naturalis or Natural History Museum of Leiden on October 17, 2016 in Leiden, Netherlands. The skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex was excavated in 2013 in Montana, USA, by Naturalis Biodiversity Center. The fossil is part of the Naturalis collection and is more than 80% of the bone volume present. All essential and high volume bones are in place. This places Trix in the top 3 ranking of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in the world. In addition, all the bones are extremely well preserved. The quality of this fossil is unmatched by any other large T-Rex find in the world.

(Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

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Finding the huge collection together is an indication that these early reptiles, which were the first flying vertebrates on Earth, lived or at least nested in colonies, perhaps like sea turtles do now. The authors wrote in the study, however, that no actual nest has been found yet.

A storm likely washed the eggs and other pterosaurs into a nearby lake, where they were fossilized.

The eggs themselves had soft, parchment-like shells.

Because of the number of fossils found here, this species of pterosaur is now the one we have the most complete picture of, but questions remain, according to Deeming. We still don't know if the eggs were buried in sand or vegetation or why they appeared dehydrated.

"Hopefully additional finds of equally spectacular fossils will help us answer such questions for pterosaurs and allow us to paint an increasingly complete picture of reproduction in these extinct species," he wrote.

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