One of the world’s earliest and most primitive flying reptiles has been discovered by an international team of scientists, according to a new study published in Current Biology
A fossil belonging to a pterodactyloid that flew over Earth around 163 million years ago was discovered in northwest China and identified by a team of scientists. It belongs to a new species called Kryptodrakon progenitor – meaning "ancestral hidden serpent" since it was found where the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was filmed.
"This finding represents the earliest and most primitive pterodactyloid pterosaur, a flying reptile in a highly specialized group that includes the largest flying organisms," Chris Liu, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences and author of the new study, said in a statement.
Fossil fragments helped researchers determine where the ancient creature originated, lived and evolved into a land dweller. Its diet remains a mystery since no skull pieces or tooth bones were found.
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"He is a small guy, and [the fossil is] very fragmentary," paleontologist Brian Andres of the University of South Florida, a co-author of the study, told LiveScience.
From the fossil, scientists determined the flying reptile had a wingspan of about 4.5 feet – a fraction of the measurement from the animal’s descendants that had wings up to 30 feet in length.
Pterodactyloids belong to a group of species known as pterosaurs, which were close relatives to dinosaurs. They went extinct about 66 million years ago. Researchers identified the fossil as a pterodactyloid from a bone in its palm that is used for walking and flying.
While fossils are generally discovered in different areas from where the animals lived, the latest discovery suggests Kryptodrakon progenitor lived in a terrestrial environment comparable to the dry environment in northwest China where it was uncovered. According to Andres, the area was a flood plain during the time the pterosaur lived. This may explain why pterosaurs’ wings widened as they evolved – to help navigate land environments.
"He (Kryptodrakon progenitor) fills in a very important gap in the history of pterosaurs," Andres said. "With him, they could walk and fly in whole new ways."