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New Mini-Pterodactyl Among Smallest Known

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
February 11, 2008
 
A new species of miniature flying reptile that lived more than 120 million years ago has been unearthed in China, researchers announced today.

The mini-pterosaur, dubbed Nemicolopterus crypticus, had a wingspan of only 10 inches (25 centimeters)—about the size of a modern sparrow. (See pictures of the tiny flying reptile.)

This is "one of the smallest pterosaurs known," said co-discoverer Alexander Kellner, an adjunct professor at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

The newfound creature might provide clues to the evolution of later, more massive pterosaurs, the largest of which measured nearly 40 feet (12 meters) from wing tip to wing tip.

(Related news: "Fossils Reveal Two New Species of Flying Reptiles" [October 5, 2005].)

Kellner and colleagues describe the new species in tomorrow's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Highly Diverse

Pterosaurs, which had wings formed of skin rather than feathers, first appeared about 215 million years ago and are believed to be the first flying vertebrates.

The animals thrived even as Earth's tectonic forces split the supercontinent Pangaea into multiple continents and oceans about 200 million years ago.

Pterosaurs had evolved into many shapes and sizes by the time they went extinct—along with the dinosaurs—about 65 million years ago.

A team of Chinese and Brazilian paleontologists found the N. crypticus fossil preserved in the fine siltstone of an ancient waterway in northeastern China.

The tiny pterosaur was a small, toothless reptile with curved foot bones that are similar to those of birds.

The feet indicate that the animal was adapted to living in trees, Kellner said.

It likely darted across the dinosaur-dominated forests and lakes of the early Cretaceous period while feasting on insects, he added.

Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland, said that the discovery of the new fossil adds to evidence that the massive pterosaurs of the late Cretaceous evolved from smaller tree-living ancestors.

"The most primitive pterosaurs were small arboreal animals," Holtz noted.

The largest of the pterosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus, lived about 85 million years ago and "is regarded as the largest flying animal of all time," Kellner said.

The recently unearthed fossil therefore "opens a new chapter on the evolutionary history of this group of volant [flying] reptiles," he said.

Fossil Treasure Trove

Xu Xing, one of China's most well-known dinosaur hunters, said that the area where the mini-pterosaur was found was once dotted with active volcanoes that preserved a vast array of ancient species in ash about 120 million years ago.

Past digs in the area have uncovered the parrot-beaked Psittacosaurus, the small carnivorous Microraptor, sauropods, iguanodontians, and a number of primitive birds, Holtz said.

The new fossil, Kellner said, indicates that "Asia certainly played a major role in the origin of [later] pterosaurs."

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