'Tiny bug slayer' could help scientists learn more about dinosaurs

  • Kongonaphon kely fossils discovered in Madagascar could help scientists learn more about dinos and pterosaurs, an extinct flying reptile
  • It lived about 237 million years ago and stood at only 10.2 centimetres tall
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The recently-discovered tiny predator may be the key between dinosaurs and an extinct flying reptile called pterosaurs. Photo: Reuters

A pint-sized predator to bugs may provide scientists with new clues about the ancient ancestors of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, a recent study suggests.

Standing about 10.2 centimetres tall, Kongonaphon kely could be one of the last common ancestors of all dinosaurs and pterosaurs (an extinct flying reptile) and explain some of their physical characteristics and traits.

The discovery and description of the fossil of Kongonaphon kely – which means “tiny bug slayer” – could provide scientists with a lot of insights since the species was much smaller than most dinosaurs.

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“There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants,” says Christian Kammerer, a researcher in palaeontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, in the US. “But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it’s shockingly small.”

The ancient animal’s fossils date back 237 million years and were discovered in 1998 in the eastern African island of Madagascar at a site where hundreds of fossils have been collected over the years, says John Flynn, curator of fossil mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

“It took some time before we could focus on these bones, but once we did, it was clear we had something unique and worth a closer look,” Flynn says. 

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Dinosaurs and pterosaurs evolved from the group Ornithodira, but little is known about their origins. Kammerer says other small animals have been discovered in the group, but they were thought to be an exception. 

“Recent discoveries like Kongonaphon have given us a much better understanding of the early evolution of ornithodirans,” Kammerer says. “Analysing changes in body size throughout archosaur evolution, we found compelling evidence that it decreased sharply early in the history of the dinosaur-pterosaur lineage.”

The scientists also discovered key characteristics about the Kongonaphon kely, including wear on the teeth that suggests it ate insects and fuzzy skin that retained heat. Both adaptations may have helped the tiny animal fill a unique role.

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