BBC Science Focus
Coffee cup creature
Meet the tiny relative of the dinosaurs
Dinosaurs and flying pterosaurs are some of the largest animals that ever lived, but a newly described fossil from Madagascar suggests that their ancestors were surprisingly small.
The fossilised reptile, which lived around 237 million years ago, has been named Kongonaphon kely, or ‘tiny bug slayer’ (derived from both Ancient Greek and the Malagasy language of Madagascar). The creature stood only 10 centimetres tall – about the size of a coffee cup.
K. kely dates from the time in the Triassic when the dinosaurs and pterosaurs, which both belong to a group called ‘Ornithodira’, branched into separate evolutionary paths.
“There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants,” said Dr Christian Kammerer, a palaeontology curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, who took part in the research. “But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it’s shockingly small.”
Few fossils exist from the time of this split, so it’s been difficult to pin down what the last common ancestors of the dinosaurs and pterosaurs would have looked like.
Now, K. kely has provided evidence for what the researchers call a ‘miniaturisation event’: a sharp decrease in the ancestors’ body size, before the dinosaurs and pterosaurs eventually evolved to be much bigger.
Wear and tear on the reptile’s teeth suggest that it ate insects. This diet may have helped it to survive, as it occupied a different niche from its mostly meat-eating relatives.
And its discovery may also help to explain the evolution of fuzz and feathers in dinosaurs and pterosaurs. It’s thought that the Triassic habitat that K. kely lived in would have been prone to sudden shifts in temperature between the days and nights. A growth of fuzzy down might have helped it to regulate the heat in its tiny body.