To date, virtually all pterodactyl fossils have been found near oceans. But the discovery of a previously unknown Jurassic-era species called Kryptodrakon progenitor indicates that some of these ancient flying reptiles lived and evolved far from marine environments.
Say hello to Kryptodrakon, an early pterodactyl that lived some 163 million years ago. It was a relatively tiny thing, featuring a wingspan of 4.5 feet (1.4 meters). It gets its first name from the Latin krypto (hidden) and drakon (serpent) — a clear nod to the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the same desert where the movie was filmed, in northwestern China's remote Shishiugou Formation).
Kryptodrakon is now the earliest pterodactyl known to science.
Interestingly, the fossil was discovered on an inland, forested floodplain. It gives credence to the theory that pterodactyl evolution occurred in terrestrial environments. Christine Dell'Amore writes in National Geographic:
Though only a few bones of Kryptodrakon were found, scientists "lucked into" the most important one: a wing bone, said Clark, who has received funding for his research from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.
Analysis revealed that the wing bone was broader than those of later species of pterosaurs, which have been discovered in ocean sediments, Clark said. Broader wings gave the reptiles more control in navigating often challenging features on land.
Mark Witton, author of the 2013 book Pterosaurs, described Kryptodrakon as "an exciting and welcome new piece of the [pterodactyl evolution] puzzle, and it's certainly interesting that it occurs in terrestrially derived sediments."
"It's long been thought that a lot of pterosaur evolution occurred in inland settings, but actual evidence for this has been lacking until the last few years," Witton, who was not involved in the study, said in an email interview. "It's nice to not only see these predictions being met, but also pleasing that we're now actually able to observe how this important group of flying reptiles took shape."
Despite where the Kryptodrakon bones were discovered, University of Southampton's Dyke cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the creature being a landlubber. Flying animals can travel far distances, he noted, and fossils of forest birds previously have been unearthed in deep-ocean sediments.
"Especially in a group like pterosaurs where the fossil record is so incomplete," he said, the land-living conclusion is "arguable."
Read the rest of the NatGeo article here. And read the entire study at Current Biology: "The Earliest Pterodactyloid and the Origin of the Group."
Images: Emily M. Eng and Brian Andres.