ODD NEW PTEROSAUR: "Darwin's Wing" Fills Evolution Gap

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October 13, 2009—It may seem as unlikely as a jackalope, but this newfound pterosaur "hodgepodge" is the real deal, paleontologists say.

Scientists at the U.K.'s University of Leicester initially saw images of the flying reptile fossils earlier this year, and "our first thought was, Oh dear, it looks like a fake," said study co-author David Unwin.

That's because the 160-million-year-old creature has the big head of its descendants, while the rest of its body—including its very long tail—seems cobbled together from more primitive forms of the predators.

But later studies of more than 20 fossil skeletons, unearthed from an ancient lakebed in northeast China, convinced the team that the crow-size pterosaur was a real find.

The newfound fossil's sharp teeth and long jaws, as well as its presumed awkwardness on the ground, mean it may have hunted like a modern-day hawk, Unwin said.

As shown in this artist's rendering, the predator likely chased after other small animals, such as gliding mammals and feathered dinosaur species, that had started to take to the air.

Unwin and colleagues named the new species Darwinopterus, which means "Darwin's wing," in honor of the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species.

"We like to think that if Darwin was around … he'd be happy to have a pterosaur named after him," Unwin said. (Related pictures: "7 Major 'Missing Links' Since Darwin.")

Jumping the Gap

Pterosaurs ruled the skies of the Mesozoic era, which lasted from about 250 to 65 million years ago. But there is a gaping evolutionary hole between the smaller, ancient pterosaurs and more modern ones, which grew to gargantuan proportions and, unlike their ancestors, could walk. (See a picture of a giant pterosaur.)

"Our new pterosaur is great, because it jumps right in that gap that we've known about," said Unwin, whose research appears today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that Darwinopterus "is a really cool creature, because it links the two major phases of pterosaur evolution."

Pterosaurs were as diverse and as crucial to their ecosystems as modern-day birds, added Holtz, who was not involved in the research.

"If we were around in the Mesozoic," he said, "there would be people who were pterosaur specialists in just the way we have ornithologists" today.

—Christine Dell'Amore

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