A homuncular species discovered in a sandstone basin in southern Madagascar over two decades ago may provide clues to the origins of the dinosaurs, including how pterosaurs learned to fly and why the creatures may have been covered in “fuzzy” skin coverings, like feathers.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, describes the discovery of a handful of fossils from a 237-million-year-old reptile, dubbed Kongonaphon kely, for the first time. Its name is derived from both the Malagasy language of Madagascar and ancient Greek and means “small bug slayer.” It was found in the Morondava Basin, a gray sandstone basin in southern Madagascar and is shorter than an iPhone, standing at around four inches in height.
(This isn’t science, but take a look at the illustration to the right and you’ll find it was likely extremely cute.)
It has been classified as an archosaur — a common ancestor of both dinosaurs and the flying pterosaurs — and provides valuable clues to the early evolution of these animals, which were orders of magnitude larger than the diminutive Kongonaphon.
“There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants,” said Christian Kammerer, a paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in a release. “But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs and it’s shockingly small.”
Studying the fossil samples, the team were able to understand the early evolution of the archosaurs and evidence seems to suggest they began minitaurizing around the time dinosaurs and pterosaurs were first appearing. The teeth of the newly-unearthed creature also allowed the research team to conclude it likely ate insects. Being such a small reptile that certainly makes sense and would have helped the tiny bug slayer survive.
The reduction in body size may have also helped spur evolutionary success in dinosaurs and pterosaurs, according to the researchers. Miniaturization makes it much more difficult to retain heat — and the research team hypothesize Kongonaphon provides evidence fuzzy skin coverings like feathers may have originated to keep warm. In addition, previous research has shown miniaturization may be a necessary precursor to powered flight.
It’s possible Kongonaphon has provided paleontologists with a window into dinosaur and pterosaur pre-history, revealing how the beasts came to dominate the planet during the Mid Triassic period some 230 million years ago.