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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 21:23 EDT

Miniature Flying Dinosaur Fossil Discovered

February 11, 2008

A new fossil species of flying reptile with a wingspan of less than 1 ft. has been unearthed from fossil beds in northeast China. Study of the fossil suggests it is one of the smallest pterosaurs ever found.

Pterosaurs lived alongside the dinosaurs, from 228 million years ago to 65 million years ago. They were the first vertebrates to evolve winged flight. One pterosaur known as Quetzalcoatlus was enormous, sporting a wingspan of up to 36ft. , making it among the largest flying animals ever.

The newly-discovered fossilized skeleton, found by researchers led by Xiaolin Wang of the Chinese Academy of Science, was uncovered in the western part of China’s Liaoning province, a region that was forested when the tiny reptile lived there about 120 million years ago.

Pterodactyls are best known from giant examples of the prehistoric flying reptiles, and most specimens have been uncovered in coastal areas. However, this new species, named Nemicolopterus crypticus, was small, with unexpectedly curved toes, and unlike most pterodactyls was toothless.

The researchers said the legs and feet of Nemicolopterus had attachments for muscles indicating that it could grasp limbs, and speculate it might have eaten insects.

“We have this really amazing creature, sparrow sized, which lived essentially in the trees, showing us a very new, very interesting side of the evolutionary history of those animals,” said Alexander W. A. Kellner of the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“We would never have thought of it,” Kellner said in a telephone interview with Associated Press. “We just had one side of the story of pterosaur evolution. This is now providing us with information about pterosaurs that were living deep inside the continent.”

The curved toes, he added, indicate that the pterosaurs lived most of the time in trees. “Because they were flying animals, their fossils are extremely rare. So, discoveries such as this are fundamental to understand the evolution of these winged vertebrates,” he said.

“It’s a new species. It’s showing us a new chapter of the evolutionary history of those animals,” Kellner added. “How much could it grow? We have no idea,” he said. “But even if it would double its size it would still be the smallest of its particular group.”

Speaking at a news conference in Rio on Monday, Kellner said the discovery “opens a brand new chapter in the history of the evolution of these flying vertebrates.”

Matthew Carrano, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, told Associated Press that although smaller specimens have been found, those were clearly younger than this animal.

“It is interesting to see some clear arboreal adaptations in this species,” said Carrano, who was not on the research team. “It confirms a suspicion we had, that pterosaurs were more diverse in their habitats than we knew from the record.”

“Once again, the Liaoning region is bringing out all sorts of new things,” Carrano said.

Photo Caption: Artist rendering provided by the PNAS/National Academy of Sciences shows a life reconstruction of Nemicolopterus crypticus, a small derived flying reptile that lived in the gingko forests that existed some 120 million years ago in present China. As pterodactyls go it was small, toothless and had unexpectedly curved toes _ yet scientists are welcoming their new find as another piece in the puzzle of ancient life. Image courtesy of PNAS/National Academy of Sciences (copyright 2008).

On the Net:

The Nemicolopterus crypticus discovery is reported in this week’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. An abstract of the report can be viewed here

Chinese Academy of Science