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When he first saw pictures of this unusual fossilized pterosaur skull from a private collection, Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, didn’t think it was real. But once he had the 115-million-year-old slab of limestone (below) in his hands, he knew he was looking at a unique creature. Tapejara imperator, a Tupi Indian-Latin hybrid name meaning the old emperor, had a gigantic crest that took up five-sixths the area of the pterosaur’s nearly three-foot- long, three-foot-high skull. No bird, no dinosaur, no pterosaur has a crest with those proportions, says Kellner. It is like a sail on its skull. The crest, which consisted of soft tissue, rises out of a bony ridge in the center of the pterosaur’s skull. Kellner wonders how the extravagant crest, which may have been a sexual display, affected the aerodynamics of T. imperator. That structure most certainly is a problem, he says. If you want to fly, you try to avoid having structures in your way. If you want a steering mechanism, you want it on the back of the skeleton, like a tail. You may also have a crest, but just on the back part of the skull and very low. Tapejara imperator did exactly the contrary.

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