Dinky flying dinosaur fossil found

Smaller pterodactyl found in China
February 11, 2008 12:31:56 PM PST
As pterodactyls go it was small, toothless and had unexpectedly curved toes. Scientists are welcoming their newest fossil find, just discovered in China, as another piece in the puzzle of ancient life. "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.

Researchers led by Xiaolin Wang of the Chinese Academy of Science made the discovery. It's being reported in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pterodactyls are best known from giant examples of the ancient flying reptiles, and most specimens have been uncovered in coastal areas.

Dubbed Nemicolopterus crypticus - hidden flying forest dweller - the new fossil was uncovered in the western part of China's Liaoning province, a region that was forested when it lived there about 120 million years ago.

"We just had one side of the story of pterosaur evolution, Kellner said. "This is now providing us with information about pterosaurs that were living deep inside the continent."

"It's a new species. It's showing us a new chapter of the evolutionary history of those animals," Kellner went on.

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

The curved toes, he said, 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.

The fossil appears to be that of an adult, despite its tiny size.

"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."

On the web: PNAS.org