Giant Dinosaurs and Pterosaurs May Have Evolved From This Four-Inch-Tall Reptile

In Madagascar some 237 million years ago, the tiny Kongonaphon kely was chasing down insects on two legs

Kongonaphon kely
An artist's rendering of Kongonaphon kely, a newly described 4-inch-tall reptile that lived in southwestern Madagascar some 237 million years ago. Researchers think the Triassic creature may be closely related to the common ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Frank Ippolito, © American Museum of Natural History

Paleontologists have discovered a new species of reptile from the dawn of the dinosaurs that was so small it could stand in the palm of your hand, reports Will Dunham for Reuters. The researchers say the four-inch-tall, 237-million-year-old creature, named Kongonaphon kely, is an ancestor of both the famously giant dinosaurs and the flying pterosaurs, suggesting the largest animals ever to walk on land or take to the skies share miniature evolutionary origins.

"There's a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants," says Christian Kammerer, curator of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in a statement. "But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it's shockingly small."

Kongonaphon kely was unearthed in Madagascar, and its name is a mixture of ancient Greek and Malagasy that means “tiny bug slayer,” reports Ashley Strickland for CNN. Researchers announced the find in a new paper published this week in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The extinct reptile’s pointed teeth and diminutive stature inspired its name, Kammerer tells Nina Pullano of Inverse. The fossil includes an upper jaw lined with pointed “peg-like, unserrated teeth,” Kammerer tells Inverse, which suggests “an insectivorous diet for this tiny predator.” The researchers think the bug slayer was likely bipedal and measured about 16 inches long from nose to tail.

The fossil, originally found in 1998 in southwestern Madagascar, also included limb bones. John Flynn, a paleontologist with the American Museum of Natural History and co-author of the research, tells CNN that examining a section of the thigh bone allowed the team to determine that they were dealing with the remains of an adult rather than a baby.

"That's critically important for confidently concluding that the ancestors of dinosaurs and pterosaurs were tiny, in contrast to the later dinosaur giants that roamed the landscape or large pterosaurs flying high above them," Flynn tells CNN.

Kongonaphon’s small size may be evidence of a “miniaturization event” among early ornithodirans, a group encompassing later dinosaurs and pterosaurs, the researchers write in the paper.

"It seems the origin of ornithodirans was associated with a 'size squeeze,'" Kammerer tells Inverse, "which may have helped this group to flourish at a time when large-bodied roles in terrestrial ecosystems were mostly being filled by crocodile-relatives and protomammals."

Early ornithodirans are rare in the fossil record, which has obscured the shared origin of dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Sites in Madagascar in particular have played a crucial role in illuminating the poorly understood Triassic period (251.9 to 201 million years ago), says Lovasoa Ranivoharimanana, study co-author and paleontologist at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, in the statement.

From the humble beginnings of creatures like Kongonaphon, dinosaurs and pterosaurs emerged around 230 million years ago, according to Reuters. Dinosaurs went on to reach lengths of more than 100 feet, and one pterosaur had a wingspan of more than 30 feet.

In light of such huge descendants, an animal like Kongonaphon “that could fit into your hands seems almost paradoxical,” Kammerer tells Reuters. “However, it fits the broader pattern that we observe at this time. There was a sustained trend towards smaller adult body sizes in the early history of this lineage.”

The newly described fossil and others from the early to mid-Triassic may also help paleontologists figure out the evolutionary path pterosaurs took to ruling Earth’s ancient skies. Kammerer tells Inverse the earliest known pterosaurs were already fully capable of flight. He adds that there are "no good intermediates between fully terrestrial reptiles and flying pterosaurs."

Finding more early ornithodirans, Kammerer tells Inverse, could reveal the evolutionary steps that allowed the descendants of creatures like Kongonaphon to get airborne.

In the future, Flynn tells CNN that the team hopes to investigate whether Kongonaphon was more closely related to pterosaurs or dinosaurs and to further explore what may have caused the miniaturization event that gave rise to the 4-inch-tall predator.

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