Hamipterus egg accumulation: Wang et al. 2017

Earlier
here and here we looked at the 3-D eggs of Hamipterus, a basal ornithocheirid from Early Cretaceous China. The eggs are scattered in and amongst a wide size/age range of disarticulated, but 3-D fossils. So, according to the authors, the eggs were buried, then bones and eggs were transported by storms, as if bulldozed. No embryos were reported from those eggs. No explanation why the pterosaurs did not fly away in the face of the storm, nor why more sediment wasn’t packed on the buried eggs during the storm.

Today
comes news from this expanding treasure trove site with embryo bones at several stages of development in 16 eggs out of hundreds! That’s good news because full-term embryos (= hatchlings) are identical to parents and eggs keep all the bones from an individual in a neat little package so we can finally put together what Hamipterus looked like.

But that’s not the picture the authors paint.
They said, “some bones lack extensive ossification in potentially late-term embryos, suggesting that hatchlings might have been flightless and less precocious than previously assumed.” Point-by-point:

  1. No nests were found.
  2. 215+ eggs were found
  3. Eggs appeared in moderate size variation
  4. The large number of accumulated eggs (Fig. 1) indicates they were laid by different females
  5. Some were subjected to differential water uptake during transport
  6. Internal content(?) observed in 42 eggs, 16 had embryos
  7. Bones not concentrated on the bottom half of the egg, as in dinosaurs
  8. No embryo is complete. One to several bones only in each of the 16 eggs.
  9. No teeth found in embryos.
  10. The most complete embryo had a lower jaw of 17mm. That’s 4% the size of the largest adult when other full-term pterosaur embryos are 12.5% (1/8) at hatching. So these were not full-term embryos ready to hatch.
  11. In a 2.2m section, eight layers with pterosaur bones have been identified, four of which show egg concentrations in a vertical distance of 1.4 m.

The authors note and conclude:
“This suggests that the hind limbs have developed more rapidly compared to the forelimbs and might have been functional right after the animal hatched. Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general (6) and probably needed some parental care.”

No. Think again.
Pterosaur mothers carried their eggs inside their bodies until just before hatching. That gives their babies warmth and protection until they are ready to hatch. They could do this because they are lepidosaurs, as phylogenetic analysis AND egg shell thickness and pliability tells us.

Figure 1. From Wang et al. 2017, a pterosaur egg and bone accumulation. Eggs float. So do hollow pterosaur bones.

Figure 1. From Wang et al. 2017, a pterosaur egg and bone accumulation. Eggs float. So do hollow pterosaur bones.

Sedimentology report:
“This sedimentological data, associated with the exceptional quantity of eggs and bones, indicate that events of high energy such as storms have passed over a nesting site, causing the eggs to be moved inside the lake where they floated for a short period of time, becoming concentrated and eventually buried along with disarticulated skeletons.”

Bottom line and biggest problem:
The authors assume the eggs were laid. That’s because they think pterosaurs are archosaurs. Birds and crocs are archosaurs and they lay their eggs at an early stage of fertilization. Lepidosaurs wait to lay their eggs, sometimes until the moment before hatching.

Alternative hypothesis:

  1. Mass death of several year-classes of pterosaurs on beach due to lake burping deadly carbon dioxide. That stops the parents from flying away.
  2. Desiccation and insect decomposition reveals eggs inside of female skeletons. This takes just a few days to a week and allows skeletons to easily separate into individual bones (Fig. 1)
  3. Later rising waters (storms optional, melting snow pack will do), overwhelms beached skeletons and exposed eggs. Even a few extra inches of water would be enough for this.
  4. Eggs float. So do pterosaur bones
  5. Wind/ripples push eggs and bones together back against beach bank corner where they accumulate. (This happened several times over dozens to hundreds of years, but not annually.)
  6. Water recedes leaving eggs en masse along with settling disarticulated individual bones of parents and kin
  7. Burial process is later completed with airborne or waterborne sediments overwhelming the bones and eggs in situ.
  8. To point #3 above: moderate egg size variation, we also see this in the chicken eggs we get at our local grocery, but pterosaurs kept growing throughout their lives and larger ones would tend to lay bigger eggs, though this has not been conclusively demonstrated, it seems broadly logical.

Evidently
the lake burping did not always coincide with the pterosaurs flocking together. But it happened four times to a portion of the flock, perhaps over hundreds of years, and evidently at ‘the back of the room where bad things happen’.

References
Wang X and 16 co-authors 2017. Egg accumulation with 3D embryos provides insight into the life history of a pterosaur. Science 358:1197–1201.

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