Paleontologists Find a Surprise in Ancient Vomit

This Triassic pellet was once thought to contain the bones of a pterosaur. From Holgado et al., 2015.
This Triassic pellet was once thought to contain the bones of a pterosaur. From Holgado et al., 2015.

For all the dust and bug bites involved, paleontology comes off as a romantic science. In pop culture, at least, it’s a discipline suited for Cary Grant, Sam Neill, and, to a lesser extent, David Schwimmer. But, as with almost any line of work, the image is often more glamorous than the reality. Paleontology isn’t just about searching for bones in the desert or reconstructing enormous skeletons. Sometimes it requires that you look closely at some ancient upchuck.

Back in 1989 paleontologist Fabio Marco Dalla Vecchia and colleagues described an unusual fossil from the 228-208 million year old rock of Italy. It seemed to be a gastric pellet—the sort of mass of hard-to-digest materials that birds of prey regurgitate—containing the bones of an early pterosaur. While the researchers could have hoped for a specimen that hadn’t been partially-digested first, Triassic pterosaurs are so rare that it was a notable find in the history of the flying reptiles.

But now Dalla Vecchia, Borja Holgado, and colleagues have determined that the Triassic throwup doesn’t contain a pterosaur, after all. Analysis of microCT scans made of the fossil have revealed that the animal inside the pellet was one of the protorosaurs – strange reptiles that came in a bizarre variety of shapes. Specifically, Holgado and colleagues write, the bones are similar to the superficially lizard-like species Langobardisaurus pandolfii found in the same formation.

So let this be a lesson to any aspiring paleontologists who happen to be reading. There is fun in fieldwork and joy in reconstructing the ancient dead, but that’s only a part of what the science requires. You may find yourself picking bone by bone through someone’s prehistoric puke.

Reference:

Holgado, B., Dalla Vecchia, F., Fortuny, J., Bernardini, F., Tuniz, C. 2015. A reappraisal of the purported gastric pellet with pterosaurian bones from the Upper Triassic of Italy. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141275

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