Fossil of scimitar-clawed ancient reptile found in Brazil

This roughly 230-million-year-old lagerpetid, possessed a raptorial-like beak, enlarged hands with long, trenchant claws.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Artist's interpretation of Venetoraptor gassenae in a Triassic landscape
Artist's interpretation of Venetoraptor gassenae in a Triassic landscape

Caio Fantini 

The fossilized remnants of numerous plants and animals discovered in various regions of the world offer us with a glimpse into the long-lost ancient world. 

Paleontologists have now uncovered a new species of prehistoric reptile that provides unique evolutionary insights into the pterosaurs' early ancestors. 

The ancient critter has been dubbed Venetoraptor gassenae which lived in Brazil during the Triassic epoch. 

The fossil examination was led by paleontologists from the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, So Joo do Polêsine, Brazil. 

This now-extinct animal belonged to the rabbit-like reptile family called lagerpetid, which paved the way for the emergence of pterosaurs.

The extinct creature with long sharp claws

The fossilized specimen was found embedded in the rock layers of the Santa Maria Formation of the Paraná Basin in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. 

As per the statement by the researchers, the well-preserved partial skeleton unraveled some unusual features of this 230-million-year-old lagerpetid, including a raptorial-like beak and enlarged hands with long, trenchant claws (akin to a scimitar).

The genus name has been derived from two words: raptor in allusion to its raptorial beak and clutching hands, and Veneto in reference to the tourist destination 'Vale Vêneto'.

The authors highlight that the distinct characteristic suggests that ”the animal was highly specialized to its ecological niche.”

Venetoraptor used their claws to grab prey or climb. Beyond eating, the beak was used for sexual displays, vocalization, and temperature regulation. 

The scientists highlight that the role and evolutionary benefit of such a beak in Venetoraptor is unknown. 

Fossil of scimitar-clawed ancient reptile found in Brazil
Fossil of Venetoraptor gassenae

The diversity of lagerpetid group

Lagerpetids are the closest known non-flying relatives of pterosaurs. The latest findings are also significant because the origins of pterosaurs have been poorly understood due to a lack of fossil evidence. 

Dinosaurs and pterosaurs first evolved around 235 million years ago, in the Middle to Early Late Triassic period. As per the study, both groups managed to survive the Triassic extinction event.

Later, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (approximately 200 to 145.5 and 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago, respectively), dinosaurs and pterosaurs were dominating both land and sky.

The finding demonstrates the ancient lagerpetid group's diversity. The statement explained:

“The findings indicate that lagerpetids were as morphologically diverse as Triassic pterosaurs, and more morphologically diverse than Triassic dinosaurs. This implies that such diversity was already starting to flourish in the precursors of dinosaurs and pterosaurs and was not something that emerged solely after the origins of these two groups."

The results were reported in the journal Nature. 

Study abstract:

Dinosaurs and pterosaurs have remarkable diversity and disparity through most of the Mesozoic Era1–3. Soon after their origins, these reptiles diversified into a number of long-lived lineages, evolved unprecedented ecologies (for example, flying, large herbivorous forms) and spread across Pangaea4,5. Recent discoveries of dinosaur and pterosaur precursors6–10 demonstrated that these animals were also speciose and widespread, but those precursors have few if any well-preserved skulls, hands and associated skeletons11,12. Here we present a well-preserved partial skeleton (Upper Triassic, Brazil) of the new lagerpetid Venetoraptor gassenae gen. et sp. nov. that offers a more comprehensive look into the skull and ecology of one of these precursors. Its skull has a sharp, raptorial-like beak, preceding that of dinosaurs by around 80 million years, and a large hand with long, trenchant claws that firmly establishes the loss of obligatory quadrupedalism in these precursor lineages. Combining anatomical information of the new species with other dinosaur and pterosaur precursors shows that morphological disparity of precursors resembles that of Triassic pterosaurs and exceeds that of Triassic dinosaurs. Thus, the ‘success’ of pterosaurs and dinosaurs was a result of differential survival among a broader pool of ecomorphological variation. Our results show that the morphological diversity of ornithodirans started to flourish among early-diverging lineages and not only after the origins of dinosaurs and pterosaurs

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