A hidden dragon once flew the skies over China, the Kryptodrakon progenitor, and on Thursday scientists announced the discovery of the fossil of an ancestor of one found in the Gobi Desert in China that is 163 million years old. With a wingspan of about 4 and a half feet, its importance lies not in its size but in that it is about 5 million years older than another other previous fossil examples of pterosaurs.
That makes the fossil of this particular ancestor of the Kryptodrakons — whose name literally means “hidden dragons” — the oldest fossil example yet found of these flying reptiles. The flying reptiles were known as Kryptofrakon progenitors. The part of the Gobi Desert the fossil was found in, in 2001, was China’s remote Shishiugou Formation.
The Triassic period was when pterosaurs thrived. They had elongated fourth digits, or metacarpals, in their hands that supported their sometimes massive wings. In primitive pterosaurs, this bone was much smaller.
They were the kings of the skies for tens of millions of years until a new branch of the family, called the pterodactyloids, replaced them and claimed dominance over the skies.
The reptile that the fossil represents lived in a river-dominated ecosystem, and the area had a lot of prey for it to choose from. According to George Washington University paleontologist James Clark, this might suggest that the largely fish-eating pterosaurs, which ate fish from the ocean primarily, evolved far inland.
One of the later Jurassic period pterodactyloids, which was much more massive, was called the Quetzalcoatlus. It had a wingspan that was similar to that of F-16 fighter planes — about 35 feet.
The fossil records of the pterodactyloids didn’t extend back as far as many scientists thought that they should The discovery of the latest example, which dates back an additional 5 million years, helps fill in the gap in the fossil record, according to Clark.
The research and more information about this extraordinary fossil find of the Kryptodrakon progenitor was published in the Current Biology journal of April 24.The reptiles, which had relatively long tails and small heads, were once the rulers of the skies. The research of Clark and his team was funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.
Because the fossil find helps flesh out the family tree of pterosaurs, according to Gareth Dyke, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Southampton in the U.K. who wasn’t one of the researchers, the study will likely “be one of the most important papers on pterosaurs to come out this year.”
Though the fossil was originally discovered in 2001, the fragile fossil wasn’t recognized as belonging to an ancestor of pterosaurs until many years later. The Kryptodrakon progenitor fossil, the oldest yet discovered fossil of this pterosaur ancestor, has already shed light on the length of time that these reptiles soared the skies over China and other parts of the world. The fossil has also helped give an indication as to how the species evolved over time to become larger, seeking their prey from the fish of the ancient oceans.
Written by: Douglas Cobb