The discovery of a new fossil in the central region of Rio Grande do Sul brings unprecedented clues about the origin of dinosaurs and pterosaurs: it reveals that these creatures evolved from a range of forms much greater than previously thought. The finding made the cover of this Wednesday’s edition (16) of the journal Nature, one of the most important scientific journals in the world.
The article is authored by a group of researchers from different countries and led by paleontologist Rodrigo Temp Müller, from the Quarta Colônia Paleontological Research Support Center (Cappa), at the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM).
This is the first time that a study led by researchers from UFSM is on the cover of the weekly edition of the “main arm” of the British journal Nature. Müller, who heads the study, celebrates. “I am very proud of having managed to reach the cover of one of the largest scientific journals in the world. This shows that the paleontological research that we produce in Brazil, at UFSM, is at a very high level”, he says.
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The Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at UFSM, Cristina Wayne Nogueira, also celebrates the size and impact of this space. “This publication is a recognition of the excellent work of our researchers. It demonstrates that the institution produces high-level science and also the consolidation of the graduate and research ecosystem at UFSM, its position of reference in the production of excellent knowledge, giving institutional visibility and reputation at an international level.”
Discovery in the municipality of São João do Polêsine
Dinosaurs and pterosaurs are some of the most popular fossil organisms. They dominated Earth during the Mesozoic Era for approximately 165 million years, becoming extinct 66 million years ago after a huge asteroid impact.
The extinction of these animals has always been the subject of many studies, but their origins are still poorly understood, due to the scarcity of fossils of their precursors, which are often incomplete, fragmentary and poorly preserved. As a result, until today it was not known what the full body plan, biology and ecology of these precursors looked like. However, the fossil excavated in the territory of the Quarta Colônia Geopark, in the central region of RS, brought new and important clues about these issues.
Discovered in the municipality of São João do Polêsine in 2022 by Rodrigo Temp Müller, the new species was named Venetoraptor gassenae. “Venetoraptor” means the Veneto Valley raptor, in reference to a tourist location called the “Veneto Valley” of the municipality. The name “gassenae” pays homage to Valserina Maria Bulegon Gassen, one of the main responsible for the creation of the Support Center for Paleontological Research of the Fourth Colony.
What was Venetoraptor like?
The discovered species measured approximately 1 meter in length, weighed between 4 and 8 kilograms, and moved around adopting a bipedal posture, having its hands free to handle prey or climb trees. The animal bears a combination of unusual features, such as a raptorial beak and proportionately large hands that are armed with long, sharp claws.
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The tiny reptile lived around 230 million years ago and belongs to an extinct group called the Lagerpetidae. These animals are considered the closest relatives of pterosaurs, the flying reptiles that shared the Earth with the dinosaurs. However, unlike pterosaurs, Venetoraptor gassenae and the other lagerpetids were not flying animals.
Study brings great contribution to paleontology
Venetoraptor gassenae is one of the most informative pterosaur precursors ever discovered, allowing for the first time a closer look at the faces of these enigmatic reptiles. The unusual raptorial beak predates that of dinosaurs by approximately 80 million years. In modern birds, similar beaks are attributed to various functions, such as tearing meat or eating hard fruit. Associated with the large sickle-shaped claws, the beak may have been used to handle potential prey. Additionally, claws may have helped Venetoraptor gassenae climb trees.
Combining the new information produced from the discovery of Venetoraptor gassenae with other recent discoveries of dinosaur and pterosaur precursors, the researchers were able to observe that the variety of forms of these precursors was much greater than previously thought. This high diversity indicates that the lineage that gave rise to dinosaurs and pterosaurs underwent a first major diversification pulse before the establishment of the most famous reptiles of the Mesozoic Era. In this way, the evolutionary success of dinosaurs and pterosaurs was the result of differential survival amid a wider range of ecological and morphological variation.
According to the research, the discovery of a reptile with such an unusual morphology not only sheds light on yet another component of the Triassic ecosystems that witnessed the origin of dinosaurs and pterosaurs. It also demonstrates that an extraordinary diversity of unknown organisms is still hidden in rocks around the world.
The bony elements of Venetoraptor gassenae are perfectly preserved, representing one of the best preserved lagerpetids ever found. The fossils will be on display at the Paleontological Research Support Center of Quarta Colônia/UFSM, in the municipality of São João do Polêsine, the same municipality in which it was discovered.
Source: BdF Rio Grande do Sul
Editing: Marcelo Ferreira