Dinosaur ancestors 'may have been tiny'

08 Juillet, 2020, 02:56 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • This illustration provided by the American Museum of Natural History in July 2020 depicts a Kongonaphon kely a newly described reptile near the ancestry of dinosaurs and pterosaurs shown to scale with human hands

The experts were typically intrigued by the fossil of Kongonaphon kely, found encased in sandstone, because of its "shockingly small" size, as well as its pointed teeth implying it was much more than what meets the eye.

The work appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This reptile, which would have measured approximately a mere 10 centimeters in height, is near the root of the lineage Ornithodira they belong to both dinosaurs such as the pterosaurs.

Small, but dangerous!"There's a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants", says palaeontologist Christian Kammerer from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, first author of the paper describing the findings.

"Evolution of gigantism from tiny ancestors is not uncommon in the fossil record", added study co-author and paleontologist John Flynn of the American Museum of Natural History in NY. "But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it is surprisingly small".

"That's critically important for confidently concluding that the ancestors of dinosaurs and pterosaurs were tiny, in contrast to the later dinosaur giants that roamed the landscape or large pterosaurs flying high above them", Flynn said. The fossils of Kongonaphon were found in Triassic (~237 million years ago) rocks in southwestern Madagascar and demonstrate the existence of remarkably small animals along the dinosaurian stem.

They are then thought to have increased to huge proportions in the dinosaur lineage.

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"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 continued.

The fossil, named Kongonaphon kely or "tiny bug slayer", was discovered by scientists in 1998 as part of a program led by John Flynn, American Museum of Natural History Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals. "This is a great case for why field discoveries - combined with modern technology to analyze the fossils recovered - is still so important".

"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", Dr Kammerer said.

The scientists discovered characteristics about the Kongonaphon kely, including wear on the teeth that suggests it ate insects and fuzzy skin that retained heat.

"The discovery of this small relative of dinosaurs and pterosaurs emphasizes the importance of the fossil record of Madagascar to improve the knowledge of the history of vertebrates in times that are little known in other places", says the co-director of the project Lovasoa Ranivoharimanana, of the University of Antananarivo.

That's because heat retention in small bodies is hard, and the mid-late Triassic was a time of climatic extremes, inferred to have sharp shifts in temperature between hot days and cold nights.

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