The group that includes some of Earth's most massive dinosaurs and pterosaurs just got a little bit smaller.
In Madagascar, researchers discovered a previously unknown species of ancient reptile named Kongonaphon kely. It's part of the ancient animal group Ornithodira — the last common ancestor between dinosaurs and winged pterosaurs.
Kongonaphon stood just shy of FOUR INCHES TALL, a far cry from some of the massive creatures that also comprise Ornithodira. In a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers describe its 237-million-year-old fossilized skeleto
Because of its tiny size, the researchers first had to determine that Kongonaphon wasn't actually a hatchling. They cut open one of the fossilized bones to analyze a cross-section, like counting rings on a tree, to determine that it's a likely the bone of a mature animal.
In turn, they discovered that it was simply miniature. Miniaturization describes animals with smaller adult body size, relative to their evolutionary lineage. Animals might become smaller when it benefits their evolution — smaller animals may need fewer resources, helping them survive in scarce times, for example.
In the case of Kongonaphon, being smaller and eating insects might have helped to survive climate extremes. Both dinosaurs and pterosaurs are known to have fuzzy skin and feathers, which also may be part of thermoregulation.
Take pterosaurs: The earliest record of the group is already a winged, fully-flying animal, Kammerer explains. So far, he says, scientists have found "no good intermediates between fully terrestrial reptiles and flying pterosaurs."
"I suspect that early ornithodirans were not rare components of their ecosystems, they were probably common and quite diverse, but few have been preserved in the deposits traditionally focused on by Triassic workers," Kammerer says.
In the future, Kammerer predicts that further studies will uncover more tiny ornithodirans like Kongonaphon.
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