Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

New type of flying reptile discovered

14.10.2009
Discovered by scientists at the University of Leicester and the Geological Institute, Beijing, Darwin's pterodactyl preyed on flying dinosaurs and shows how a controversial type of evolution may have powered the origin of major new groups

An international group of researchers from the University of Leicester (UK), and the Geological Institute, Beijing (China) have identified a new type of flying reptile – providing the first clear evidence of an unusual and controversial type of evolution.

Pterosaurs, flying reptiles, also known as pterodactyls, dominated the skies in the Mesozoic Era, the age of dinosaurs, 220-65 million years ago. Scientists have long recognized two different groups of pterosaurs: primitive long-tailed forms and their descendants, advanced short-tailed pterosaurs some of which reached gigantic size. These groups are separated by a large evolutionary gap, identified in Darwin's time, that looked as if it would never be filled – until now.

Details of a new pterosaur, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences fits exactly in the middle of that gap. Christened Darwinopterus, meaning Darwin's wing, the name of the new pterosaur honours the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the origin of species.

Gaps in the fossil record are common – only a tiny proportion of all the animals and plants that ever lived were fortunate enough to become fossilised, and only a tiny proportion of these have been collected so far. Consequently, our understanding, both of the history of particular groups such as pterosaurs, and of the evolutionary processes that generated those histories, is still patchy and often controversial.

More than 20 fossil skeletons of Darwinopterus, some of them complete, were found earlier this year in north-east China in rocks dated at around 160 million years old. This is close to the boundary between the Middle and Late Jurassic and at least 10 million years older than the first bird, Archaeopteryx. The long jaws, rows of sharp-pointed teeth and rather flexible neck of this crow-sized pterosaur suggest that it might have been hawk-like, catching and killing other contemporary flying creatures. These included various pterosaurs, tiny gliding mammals and small, pigeon-sized, meat-eating dinosaurs that, aided by their feathered arms and legs had recently taken to the air, and would later evolve into birds.

"Darwinopterus came as quite a shock to us" explained David Unwin part of the research team and based at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies. "We had always expected a gap-filler with typically intermediate features such as a moderately elongate tail – neither long nor short – 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 that of primitive forms".

Dr Unwin added: "The geological age of Darwinopterus and bizarre combination of advanced and primitive features reveal a great deal about the evolution of advanced pterosaurs from their primitive ancestors. First, it was quick, with lots of big changes concentrated into a short period of time. Second, whole groups of features (termed modules by the researchers) that form important structures such as the skull, the neck, or the tail, seem to have evolved together. But, as Darwinopterus shows, not all these modules changed at the same time. The head and neck evolved first, followed later by the body, tail, wings and legs. 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. This supports the controversial idea of a relatively rapid "modular" form of evolution.

The research team warns that much more work is needed to substantiate this idea of modular evolution but, if it proves to be true, then it might help explain not just how primitive pterosaurs evolved into more advanced forms, but many other cases among animals and plants where we know that rapid large scale evolution must have taken place. The extraordinary evolutionary radiation of mammals following the extinction of dinosaurs is just one of many examples.

Said Dr Unwin: "Frustratingly, these events, which are responsible for much of the variety of life that we see all around us, 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. Darwinopterus is a small but important step in that direction."

Dave Unwin | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.le.ac.uk

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht World’s oldest known oxygen oasis discovered
18.01.2018 | Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen

nachricht A close-up look at an uncommon underwater eruption
11.01.2018 | Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Artificial agent designs quantum experiments

On the way to an intelligent laboratory, physicists from Innsbruck and Vienna present an artificial agent that autonomously designs quantum experiments. In initial experiments, the system has independently (re)discovered experimental techniques that are nowadays standard in modern quantum optical laboratories. This shows how machines could play a more creative role in research in the future.

We carry smartphones in our pockets, the streets are dotted with semi-autonomous cars, but in the research laboratory experiments are still being designed by...

Im Focus: Scientists decipher key principle behind reaction of metalloenzymes

So-called pre-distorted states accelerate photochemical reactions too

What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...

Im Focus: The first precise measurement of a single molecule's effective charge

For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.

Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...

Im Focus: Paradigm shift in Paris: Encouraging an holistic view of laser machining

At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.

No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...

Im Focus: Room-temperature multiferroic thin films and their properties

Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tohoku University have developed high-quality GFO epitaxial films and systematically investigated their ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. They also demonstrated the room-temperature magnetocapacitance effects of these GFO thin films.

Multiferroic materials show magnetically driven ferroelectricity. They are attracting increasing attention because of their fascinating properties such as...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

10th International Symposium: “Advanced Battery Power – Kraftwerk Batterie” Münster, 10-11 April 2018

08.01.2018 | Event News

See, understand and experience the work of the future

11.12.2017 | Event News

Innovative strategies to tackle parasitic worms

08.12.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Let the good tubes roll

19.01.2018 | Materials Sciences

How cancer metastasis happens: Researchers reveal a key mechanism

19.01.2018 | Health and Medicine

Meteoritic stardust unlocks timing of supernova dust formation

19.01.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>