TAMPA — A University of South Florida professor led a trio of paleontologists who have discovered and named the earliest of the pterodactyloids, a group of flying reptiles that became the dominant winged creatures of the prehistoric world.
USF’s Brian Andres also determined that the pterodactyloids appeared about 5 million years earlier than previously known, about 163 million years ago.
Any finding of the earliest and most primitive member of a group is significant, Andres said. This one provided new information on the evolution of pterosaurs and allowed the professor to create a “tree of life” outlining the evolutionary relationships of different species.
Andres, James Clark of George Washington University and Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences named the new pterosaur species Kryptodrakon progenitor in a nod to the area it was found, the harsh and barren Shishugou Formation in northwest China.
The area is famous for the discovery of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. And it was featured in the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” so the scientists went with “krypto” for hidden and “drakon” for serpent, with “progenitor” reflecting its status as the earliest of the species.
“The find itself is a rather uninspiring species — a pretty tiny guy” with a wingspan of about 4½ feet, Andres said. But he said it lived during a “massive overhaul” of the flying reptiles about halfway through their existence — the evolution from primitive pterosaurs to pterodactyloid pterosaurs, which had shorter tails and longer skulls, necks and hands.
They appear to have changed from having a predominantly marine-based history to a predominantly land-based history. And the pterodactyloids grew — a lot.
“They were the ones that went on to be large and in charge,” Andres said.
Pterodactyloids would evolve into creatures that stood as tall as a giraffe. These flying reptiles lived and died alongside the dinosaurs.
Andres joined a Sino-American expedition in northwest China in 2000. Colleagues found the specimen in 2001 shortly after he had returned to teach a class at George Washington University, where he was a graduate student.
“At first they thought it was a dinosaur,” Andres said. “They did a little preparation of the fossil, and Jim recognized, ‘Whoa, this is not a dinosaur. It’s a pterosaur.’ He brought it back to me to look at.”
Thirteen years later, the three paleontologists published what they’ve learned from the find in an April edition of Current Biology.
It’s a true feather in the cap for Andres, who is the first vertebrate paleontologist at USF. The university’s paleontology department previously was made up exclusively of invertebrate specialists. Paleontology is the study of fossils and what they reveal; vertebrates are animals with a backbone or spinal column.
Andres, 36, said he made his career choice when he was 3. His mother had enrolled him in science courses in his native Grand Prairie, Texas, to provide some alone time after the birth of his younger brother.
“According to her, coming home that first day I was hooked on it,” he said. “And it’s pretty much been my passion ever since.”