From China, the tiniest pterodactyl

Researchers excavating the fossil-rich rocks of northeastern China have discovered another paleontological marvel: a flying reptile the size of a sparrow.

TINY FLYER. An artist’s rendition of Nemicolopterus crypticus, a sparrow-sized pterodactyl that inhabited forests of northeastern China about 120 million years ago. M. Skrepnick

The tiny, toothless creature, dubbed Nemicolopterus crypticus—meaning “hidden flying forest dweller”—lived about 120 million years ago, says Alexander W.A. Kellner, a vertebrate paleontologist at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Other fossils found in the same rocks suggest that the fine-grained sediments were deposited on the bottom of a lake in a heavily forested region, Kellner and his colleagues report in the Feb. 12 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Many of the bones in the creature’s feet were strongly curved, a sign that N. crypticus probably spent much of its time grasping limbs, Kellner says. Studies of modern birds have often noted a link between the curvature of a bird’s claws and its lifestyle (SN: 10/26/02, p. 270).

N. crypticus was a reptile but wasn’t a dinosaur. It was a pterodactyl, part of a group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs. While some species had a wingspan approaching 10 meters, N. crypticus probably had a wingspan of just 25 centimeters, says Kellner. Many of the fossilized bones were fully ossified but those in the skull weren’t fused together, so this creature was a juvenile or young adult, the researchers speculate.

How much more the creature might have grown is up for debate, says Kellner. However, he notes, “even if it were doubled in size, it would still be the smallest pterosaur yet found.”

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