Why did pterodactyls fly

Cryptodracon precursor, flying reptile, oldest ancestor of pterodactyls

Thanks to the discovery of the cryptodracon precursor in 2001 in the Shishugou Formation in China, we know that the first pterosaur ancestors of Pteranodon appeared five million years earlier than previously thought. This flying reptile, which lived 163 million years ago, allows us to determine the origins of pterodactyls.

The pterosaurs, the most famous of which is the pteranodon, were not dinosaurs, although they lived during part of the Kurassian and existed until the end of the Cretaceous Period. These flying reptiles were not ancestors of birds either, but they continue to be emblematic of the dinosaur era and fascinate amateur and professional paleontologists alike. Now researchers led by James Clark of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in Washington and Brian Andres of the University of South Florida, both American paleontologists, have just published an interesting article with colleague Xu Xing, Pterodactyls in Contemporary Biology.

$ config [ads_text] not found

Scientists announce that they have discovered and identified the fossil remains of the most primitive and oldest pterodactyloid to date. The new species was called the cryptodracon precursor. Its etymology (crypto, "hidden", which in English and Drakon is supposed to be hidden, "snake") is a nod to the fact that it was found not far from the location of a famous martial arts film, Crouching, Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the came out in France under the title Tigreet Dragon.

Some of the fragmentary remains of the cryptodracon precursor. They are related to the skeletal pattern of Pterodactylus antiquus. The scale bar is 50 mm. © Brian Andres, Peter Wellnhofer

Pterodactyloid, an evolutionary radiation in the Middle Jurassic

The precursor of the cryptodracon lived about 163 million years ago in a region in northwest China known to paleontologists, as the famous Shishugou formation can be explored there. Originally, it was a swampy area that bordered a small mountain range that was dotted with devolcans. It was inhabited by dinosaurs, small crocodiles, and desamphibians, the remains of which are piled on top of each other in small depressions that appear to be filled with volcanic mud reminiscent of that of the lahars. The formation of Shishugou is therefore particularly rich in dinosaurs and reptiles of all kinds that were trapped in this mud and quickly buried, hence the fossil record found good conservation. In this formation we discovered Guanlong wucaii.

With a wingspan of 1.37 m, the cryptodracon precursor is the second Pterosaurus discovered in the Shishugou formation. It helps to better understand how the first pterodactyloid appeared, which millions of years later would create the famous Quetzalcoatlus with its 14 meter span. It seems clear that the original pterodactyloid lived in terrestrial rather than marine environments and evolved where other ancient related pterosaur specimens had previously been found. Pterodactyloids would come from a group of adaptive, radiation-filled flying reptiles exploring an evolutionary path in these environments, a bit like bats and other modern flying vertebrates.