Scientists have discovered fossil of the earliest and most primitive reptile, the largest known flying creature to have ever existed that lived some 163 million years ago.
Working on a fossil discovered in northwest China, scientists named the new pterosaur species Kryptodrakon progenitor.
The team led by University of South Florida (USF) paleontologist Brian Andres, James Clark of the GW Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences established it as the first pterosaur to bear the characteristics of the Pterodactyloidea, which would become the dominant winged creatures of the prehistoric world.
"This finding represents the earliest and most primitive pterodactyloid pterosaur, a flying reptile in a highly specialised group that includes the largest flying organisms," said Chris Liu, programme director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences.
"The research has extended the fossil record of pterodactyloids by at least five million years to the Middle-Upper Jurassic boundary about 163 million years ago," said Liu.
Kryptodrakon progenitor lived around the time of the Middle-Upper Jurassic boundary.
Through studying the fossil fragments, researchers also determined that the pterodactyloids originated, lived, and evolved in terrestrial environments - rather than marine environments where other specimens have been found.
The fossil is of a small pterodactyloid with a wingspan estimate of about 4.5 feet. Pterodactyloids - who went on to evolve into giant creatures, some as big as small planes - went extinct with the dinosaurs, about 66 million years ago.
Pterosaurs are considered close relatives to the dinosaurs, but are not dinosaurs themselves.
The discovery provides new information on the evolution of pterodactyloids. This area was likely a flood plain at the time the pterosaur lived, Andres said.
As the pterosaurs evolved, their wings changed from being narrow, which are more useful for marine environments, to being more broad near the origin of the pterodactyloids - helpful in navigating land environments.
"He (Kryptodrakon progenitor) fills in a very important gap in the history of pterosaurs. With him, they could walk and fly in whole new ways," Andres said.
The research was published in the journal Current Biology.