Simanaitis Says

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SMUGGLING OLD BONES seems like a strange con. But fossils have value, and everyone from quarry workers to paleontologists have been malefactors. Countering them have been the F.B.I. and similar agencies around the world. 

Image by Mike Reddy from The New York Times, September 5, 2021.

Here are tidbits prompted by a “Sketchbook” mention of Tupandactylus navigans in The New York Times, September 5, 2021, also gleaned from several Internet sources and the PLOS ONE technical paper on this flying reptile of some 100 million years ago.

The Early Cretaceous. The Cretaceous geological period ran from about 145 to 66 million years ago. Dinosaurs continued to dominate, among them flying ones, pterosaurs (from the Greek, winged lizards). Tupandactylus, Wikipedia describes, was a pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous Crato Formation of Brazil.

An artist’s rendering of Tupandactylus navigans. Image from Victor Beccari in the PLOS  ONE journal.

The Crato Formation is an accumulation of fossils in northeastern Brazil’s Araripe Basin. As early as 1823, fossils of fish were found there; in 1993, a study of Crato Formation limestones identified a new site for pterosaurs. 

The Baddies. As described in InSightCrime, November 20, 2020, “The discovery of a fossil trafficking network in Brazil’s northeastern state of Ceará has shone a spotlight on a little noticed but thriving, decades-old illegal trade…. According to a police statement, the operation targeted businessmen, civil servants, and middlemen who negotiated rare fossils in the region. A professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who allegedly paid monthly bribes to local quarry workers to illegally obtain fossils is also under investigation, according to the police news release.”

Smuggling Brazilian fossils had been going on since at least the 1990s. But it reached a high in 2014 when, according to InSightCrime, “Taissa Rodrigues, a paleontologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Espírito Santo, came across an entire pterosaur fossil for sale on eBay for $262,000. After she contacted the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office, an investigation found the near-complete skeleton of the large flying reptile in France.”

T. navigans is Unearthed. Scitech Daily, August 29, 2021, reports another find, “A fossil acquired in a police raid has turned out to be one of the best-preserved flying reptiles ever found, according to a study published on August 25, 2021 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Victor Beccari of the University of São Paulo and colleagues.”

T. navigans, embedded in Crato Formation limestone. The fossil is remarkably complete, even to some soft tissue. This and the following image from Becarri, et al.

“In this study,” Scitech Daily says, “researchers describe an exceptional tapejarid specimen which includes nearly the entire body, mostly intact and even including remnants of soft tissue alongside the bones, making it the most complete tapejarid skeleton ever found in Brazil.”

Scitech Daily continues, ‘This fossil belongs to a species called Tupandactylus navigans, and it has a dramatic history. It is preserved across six square-cut limestone slabs which were confiscated during a police raid at Santos Harbour in São Paulo. It is now among the collections of the University of São Paulo, where researchers were able to reunite the slabs and examine the entire fossil, even CT-scanning to reveal the bones concealed within the stone. This is the first time that paleontologists have been able to study more than just the skull of this species.”

How Well Did T. navigans Navigate? Its large head crest could have negatively influenced flight. Or maybe it functioned as a sail, in providing additional control. Future research with this exceptional archaeological find may tell. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 


  1. Bob
    September 7, 2021

    Regarding the finned head, note that famed aerodynamicist Dr. Paul MacCready chose the Pterosaur to model for a flying demo. Dr. Paul cut his teeth becoming model airplane and then world sailplane champion when he was in his youth and teens. He’s best known for developing the first successful and Channel Crossing human powered craft, and a remarkable variety of drones, military, communications and ecological.

    He used the head as a rudder, which the pterosaur lacked not having a tail as birds developed later. Yaw stability is a weakness of pure flying wings. With the head rudder, the radio control model flew successfully, but was unstable without.

    btw – Some early aircraft attempted to incorporate sails, but it doesn’t work without the resistance of water or earth surface to push against to generate thrust. I feel evolution would not let things go that far for that reason.

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