Scientists on Thursday said they have found a fossil from 163
million years ago that represents the oldest known example of a
lineage of advanced flying reptiles that later would culminate in
the largest flying creatures in Earth's history.
The newly identified Jurassic period creature, a species named
Kryptodrakon progenitor that was unearthed in the Gobi desert in
northwestern China, was modest in size, with a wingspan of perhaps
But later members of its branch of the flying reptiles known as
pterosaurs were truly colossal, including Quetzalcoatlus, whose
wingspan of about 35 feet was roughly the same as that of an F-16
Roughly 220 million years ago, pterosaurs became the first flying
vertebrates to appear on Earth, with birds — first appearing about
150 million years ago — and bats — appearing about 50 million years
ago — coming much later.
Pterosaurs arose during the Triassic period not long after their
cousins, the dinosaurs, also made their debut. Their wings were
supported by an incredibly elongated fourth digit of the hand — the
The pterosaurs remained largely unchanged for tens of millions of
years — with characteristics like long tails and relatively small
heads — and none became very big. But later during the Jurassic
period, some developed anatomical changes that heralded the arrival
of a new branch called pterodactyloids that eventually replaced the
more primitive forms of pterosaurs.
Many of these pterodactyloids had massive, elongated heads topped
with huge crests, lost their teeth and grew to huge sizes. Perhaps
the defining characteristic of the group is an elongation in the
bone at the base of the fourth finger called the fourth metacarpal,
and Kryptodrakon is the oldest known pterosaur to have this advance,
the researchers said.
"SUCCESS OF THE GROUP"
"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.
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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
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, the researchers said.
"This is filling in that time gap," Clark said.
Its genus name, Kryptodrakon, means "hidden dragon" in honor of the
2000 film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," that had parts filmed
near where it was unearthed. Its species name, progenitor, means
The research was published in the journal Current Biology.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by G. Crosse)
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