Scientists have found a fossil from 163 million years ago that represents the oldest known example of flying reptiles that later evolved to become the largest flying creatures in Earth’s history.
The newly identified Jurassic period creature, a species named Kryptodrakon progenitor was unearthed in the Gobi desert in northwestern China, was modest in size, with a wingspan of perhaps 1.37m. But later members of its branch of the flying reptiles known as pterosaurs were truly colossal – including Quetzalcoatlus, whose wingspan of about 11m was roughly the same as that of an F-16 fighter.
Age of flying reptiles
“In primitive pterosaurs, it is one of the shortest and least variable bones in the wing, but in pterodactyloids it is quite elongated,” said Brian Andres, a paleontologist at the University of South Florida, and one of the researchers.
Kryptodrakon lived right before its fellow pterodactyloids began to take over the ancient skies. “We can look at his anatomy and see what were the last changes in his body that may be responsible for the success of the group,” Andres added.
Another important element of the discovery is the environment that Kryptodrakon called home.
It lived in a river-dominated ecosystem far from the ocean in a region teeming with life, including a fearsome dinosaur predator called Sinraptor and a gigantic plant-eating dinosaur named Mamenchisaurus that boasted one of the longest necks of any creature ever to walk the planet.
George Washington University paleontologist James Clark said the fact that Kryptodrakon lived in such an ecosystem along with other evidence indicates that the advanced pterosaurs – many of which later ruled the skies over seashore ecosystems and fed on fish in the oceans – actually first evolved far inland in a terrestrial environment.
The origin of the pterodactyloids had been a little bit of a quandary, with their fossil record not extending back in time as much as some scientists had expected. Kryptodrakon is about five million years older than any other known member of the advanced pterosaur lineage. “This is filling in that time gap,” Clark said.
Its genus name, Kryptodrakon, means 'hidden dragon' in honour of the 2000 Ang Lee-directed film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which had parts filmed on location near where the fossil was unearthed. Its species name, progenitor, means ancestral. The research was published in the journal Current Biology. – Reuters