If Jurassic Park taught you that dinosaurs and gigantism are synonymous, it is time to update your knowledge. A newly described species from Madagascar suggests that dinosaurs and pterosaurs (extinct flying reptiles) had extremely small ancestors — just 10 centimetres tall. It was named Kongonaphon kely which roughly translates from the Malagasy language as ‘tiny bug slayer' — a reference to its insect diet.
The fossils were discovered in 1998 as part of an expedition by an American–Malagasy crew.
“The site that produced Kongonaphon had already yielded a number of other fossils, so they were exploring it carefully, and in doing so were able to find even very small bones. It may seem like a long time between discovery and publication (22 years), but this is fairly typical for paleontology,” explains Christian F. Kammerer, Research Curator of Paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in an email to The Hindu. He is the corresponding author of the paper recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“In the case of this animal, I had to make detailed comparisons with all of its relatives, so that I could be certain we were dealing with a new species and not just another specimen of a previously-known type,” he says.
Dr. Kammerer adds that during the time Kongonaphon was alive (around 237 million years ago), Madagascar was directly attached to India as part of the supercontinent Gondwana. “Triassic vertebrate fossils of similar age have been found in a band of rocks extending across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, but thus far nothing like Kongonaphon has been found there. I am confident that future work by Indian paleontologists will recover relatives of Kongonaphon .”
The paper notes that such tiny ancestral body size may help explain the origins of flight in pterosaurs. Dr. Kammerer details: “All flying animals seem to have evolved from very small ancestors. A smaller, lighter body is more conducive to aerial locomotion such as gliding, which seems to be an important intermediary step in the origin of flight. Extensive studies on the origins of birds have shown there was also a miniaturisation event there, with the gigantic theropod dinosaurs becoming progressively smaller in size and the first birds (such as Archaeopteryx ) being only around the size of a pigeon or a myna.”
Analysis of body size throughout the history of dinosaurs and relatives shows that ancestrally medium-sized animals evolved into very small animals, such as Kongonaphon, which would have been around 10 cm tall and about 30 cm long. This then evolved into dinosaurs and pterosaurs which could reach enormous sizes.
Dr. Kammerer adds that they are currently analysing many other fossils previously collected at the same site as Kongonaphon was. The team is also studying prehistoric ecosystems and the evolution of Triassic animals.