NC Scientist Discovers a Tiny Ancient Relative of Dinosaurs and Pterosaurs

Tiny dino discovery may help explain origins of flight, evolution among dinosaurs


July 9, 2020 

"Tiny bug slayer" re-discovered

“Cute” is normally not a word you’d use to describe a dinosaur.

But the discovery of a fossil reptile, named Kongonaphon kely, or “tiny bug slayer,” may change that. The creature lived about 237 million years ago in Madagascar. It would have stood just 10 centimeters (or about 4 inches) tall. And for a tiny dinosaur, you might think it is kind of cute.

It’s also an important discovery!

In an article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers say the “tiny bug slayer” may help explain the origins of flight in pterosaurs, the presence of “fuzz” on the skin of both pterosaurs and dinosaurs, and how giant dinosaurs may have evolved from their tiny ancestors.

“There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants,” said Christian Kammerer, a research curator in paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences who was part of the team that discovered the fossil remains. “But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it’s shockingly small."

And that’s what makes the discovery so significant. Dinosaurs and pterosaurs both belong to the group Ornithodira. But nobody knows very much about their origins because not many fossils near where the groups diverged in evolutionary history have been found.The fossils of Kongonaphon were discovered in 1998 in Madagascar by a team of researchers led by American Museum of Natural History Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals John Flynn.

“This fossil site in southwestern Madagascar from a poorly known time interval globally has produced some amazing fossils, and this tiny specimen was jumbled in among the hundreds we’ve collected from the site over the years,” Flynn said. “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.”

Other members of the research team included scientists and students from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Small dinosaurs more common than we thought

Kongonaphon isn’t the first small animal known near the root of the ornithodiran family tree, but until now scientists hadn’t paid much attention to them. They were discounted as exceptions. The general thinking was that body size remained similar among the first archosaurs—the larger reptile group that includes birds, crocodilians, non-avian dinosaurs, and pterosaurs—and the earliest ornithodirans. Later on, in the dinosaur lineage, body size increased to gigantic proportions.

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

Call it a “miniaturization” event. And fossils such as Kongonaphon indicate that the dinosaur and pterosaur lineages originated from extremely small ancestors. Judging from the wear on the teeth of Kongonaphon, it appears it ate insects, which may have helped early ornithodirans survive by filling a niche from their mostly meat-eating relatives.

Dinosaur fuzz

There’s one other significant finding and this relates to dinosaur “fuzz.” Evidence from the Kongonaphon fossil suggests the fuzzy skin coverings which are found on both the dinosaur and pterosaur sides of the ornithodiran tree, and which range from tiny hairs to feathers, may have started from the creature trying to stay comfortable.

It’s thermoregulation. That’s because heat retention in small bodies is difficult, and the mid-late Triassic was a time of climatic extremes, inferred to have sharp shifts in temperature between hot days and cold nights. Who could have a guessed a “cute” dinosaur could tell us so much?

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.