It is a small, toothless creature with unexpectedly curved toes. But it has excited scientists, who have welcomed their new find. And the sparrow-sized piece in the puzzle of ancient life, called pterodactyl, is from Liaoning province.
The latest fossil find by international researchers, led by paleontologist Wang Xiaolin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been reported in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This is an exciting find because it's "the smallest pterosaur, which lived in trees, the smallest toothless pterosaur and the smallest Cretaceous pterosaur found in the world," Wang told China Daily yesterday.
At a press conference held in Rio de Janeiro to announce the discovery, Alexander W. A. Kellner, of the National Museum of the Brazilian city's Federal University, said: "We have this really amazing creature showing us a very new, very interesting side of the evolutionary history of those animals.We would never have thought of it."
"We just had one side of the story of pterosaur evolution," Kellner said. "This is now providing us with information about pterosaurs that were living deep inside the continent. It's a new species. It's showing us a new chapter of the evolutionary history of those animals."
The fossil was found in the western part of Liaoning province, a region that was forested when the animal - dubbed Nemicolopterus crypticus, or "hidden flying forest dweller" - lived there about 120 million years ago.
Pterodactyls are best known from giant examples of the ancient flying reptiles, and most specimens have been uncovered in coastal areas.
Wang, who is also the lead author of the published paper, said all the pterosaurs of earlier periods (Late Triassic to Jurassic) found so far had teeth. And the toothless ones who lived in the Cretaceous period were usually quite big, with their bodies, including their "wingspan", stretching from 6 to 12 meters.
Most pterosaurs usually lived near the sea or lake. The tiny creature found in Liaoning seems to be the only one living in trees.
Since it had no teeth, it can be assumed it fed on insects.
Its beak appears perfectly suited for picking out bugs, and its curved claws might have helped it to hold onto trees, Wang said.
Initially the researchers thought it was a baby pterosaur because its skull was not fully fused, meaning it was not yet an adult. But after studying its bones, the researchers determined it was already in its early youth.
The find "opens a brand new chapter in the history of the evolution of flying vertebrates", Kellner said. "Because they were flying animals, their fossils are extremely rare. So, discoveries such as this are fundamental to the understanding of evolution of these winged vertebrates," he said.
"How much could it grow? We have no idea," Kellner said. "But even if it would double its size it would still be the smallest of its particular group."
The first fossilized pterosaur was found in Germany about 200 years ago, half a century before the first dinosaur fossil was identified.
Since then, researchers have found pterosaur fossils across the world, the largest being as big as a jumbo jet and the smallest the size of a sparrow, Wang said. So far about 150 species of the flying reptiles have been identified and named.
In the western part of Liaoning and its adjacent areas, Chinese researchers have found a large number of pterosaur fossils, proving that the area is a treasure trove for scientists studying flying reptiles, Wang said.
1. In which Chinese province was the dinosaur fossil found?
2. What do we call someone who studies fossils of animals who lived many years ago?
3. What made the recent find so exciting?
3.The fact it was "the smallest pterosaur, which lived in trees, the smallest toothless pterosaur and the smallest Cretaceous pterosaur found in the world".
（英语点津 Celene 编辑）
About the broadcaster:
Brendan joined The China Daily in 2007 as a language polisher in the Language Tips Department, where he writes a regular column for Chinese English Language learners, reads audio news for listeners and anchors the weekly video news in addition to assisting with on location stories. Elsewhere he writes Op’Ed pieces with a China focus that feature in the Daily’s Website opinion section.
He received his B.A. and Post Grad Dip from Curtin University in 1997 and his Masters in Community Development and Management from Charles Darwin University in 2003. He has taught in Japan, England, Australia and most recently China. His articles have featured in the Bangkok Post, The Taipei Times, The Asia News Network and in-flight magazines.