Pterodactyloids - the group of ancient flying reptiles that would evolve into the largest flying creatures to have ever existed - got their start about 163 million years earlier than previously believed, according to an analysis of a new fossil belonging to the oldest and most primitive of the creatures ever uncovered.
Writing in the journal Current Biology, a team of paleontologists describes the new pterosaur species, which they named Kryptodrakon progenitor, a reference to the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Pterosaurs would go on to become the dominant winged creatures in the pre-historic world, and although the new species was relatively small, the order order Pterosauria includes some of the largest flying creatures to ever live, including Quetzalcoatlus.
The research was led by Brian Andres, a paleontologist at University of South Florida, along with George Washington University professor James Clark and Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"This finding represents the earliest and most primitive pterodactyloid pterosaur, a flying reptile in a highly specialized group that includes the largest flying organisms," Chris Liu, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, said in a statement Thursday. "The research has extended the fossil record of pterodactyloids by at least five million years to the Middle-Upper Jurassic boundary about 163 million years ago."
After their analysis of Kryptodrakon progenitor fossil fragments found in northwest China, the paleontologists contend that the pterodactyloids hailed from the land, originating, living, and evolving on terrestrial environments - rather than marine environments where other specimens have been found.
Kryptodrakon progenitor fills in an important gap in the fossil record, Andres said in a statement.
The fossil, however, was not a complete specimine, instead made up of a series of bone fragments.
This has let to some controversiy surrounding the fossil. University of Leicester paleontologist David Unwin, told USA Today that it's possible that the fossil is really a mix of bones from more than one animal, or that it could come from a more primitive pterosaur instead of a pterodactyloid.
The researchers, however, dismiss Unwin's suggestion.
The fossils were found about 35 meters below the Earth in mudstone of the Shishugou Formation of northwest China, a so-called "dinosaur death pit." The creature's name is a reference to the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which was filmed near where the fossil was discovered. "Krypto" means hidden and "drakon" means serpent. "Progenitor" means ancestral or first-born and refers to the creature's status as the earliest pterodactyloid.
Pterodactyloids are a highly specialized suborder of pterosaur, and neither are classified as dinosaurs, from which modern birds evolved. Although birds and other modern flying animals share similarities with pterosaurs, pterosaurs are not the ancestors of birds.
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