Flying reptile from age of dinosaurs discovered by Leicester experts
A new type of flying reptile from the age of the dinosaurs has been discovered by researchers from the University of Leicester, it was announced today.
Scientists claim the new type of pterosaur, named Darwinopterus, could rank in the top 10 dinosaur era finds alongside the Tyrannosaurus rex and Archaeoptrex. The creature was about the size of a crow, and lived in the Mesozoic era (220 to 65 million years ago).
Its discovery has provided the first clear evidence of an unusual and controversial type of evolution, say the Leicester researchers.
It was found in the Chinese province of Liaoning earlier this year and is thought to be a missing link between two types of pterosaurs – the primitive long-tailed forms and their short-tailed descendants which were first identified by Charles Darwin.
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Pterosaurs – or winged lizards – were the first vertebrates to achieve powered flight and dominated the skies until they became extinct around 65 million years ago.
They pre-date the first bird, Archaeoptrex, by more than 10 million years.
Dr David Unwin, from the university's School of Museum Studies, who was part of the research team which identified the pterosaur, said: "Darwinopterus came as quite a shock to us. I would say it is going to be in the top 10 finds if not ever, at least in recent years."
More than 20 fossil skeletons of Darwinopterus have now been found in rocks that are 160 million years old. Its long jaws, rows of sharp-pointed teeth and rather flexible neck suggest that it might have been hawk-like, catching and killing other flying creatures.
Dr Unwin, whose work was published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, added: "You always hope that you will be involved in something spectacular and this feels like it is."
He said the geological age of Darwinopterus and its combination of advanced and primitive features revealed a lot about the evolution of advanced pterosaurs from their early ancestors.
He said: "We thought any gap filler would have much more intermediate characteristics but the strange thing about Darwinopterus is that it has a head and neck just like that of advanced pterosaurs, while the rest of the skeleton, including a very long tail, is identical to primitive forms."
This theory is known as "modular evolution" because whole groups of features, or modules, appear to evolve together.
If true, it could help explain not just how primitive pterosaurs evolved into more advanced forms, but other cases among animals and plants where "rapid large-scale'' evolution must have taken place.
Dr Unwin said: "It seems that natural selection was acting on and changing entire modules and not, as would normally be expected, just on single features such as the shape of the snout, or the form of a tooth.
"Frustratingly, these events are only rarely recorded by fossils.
"Darwin was acutely aware of this, as he noted in The Origin Of Species, and hoped that one day fossils would help to fill these gaps."
Paleontologist Dr Mark Witton, who has devoted the past four years of his research at the University of Portsmouth to the creature, said: "This is the biggest thing to come along in the since the start of the millennium and poses a lot of fascinating questions."