Most of us think of dinosaurs as frighteningly vast, lumbering beasts, but a fossil find from 237 million years ago in Madagascar hints the creatures weren’t always so big.
The fossilised reptile is the size of a mobile phone, at just four inches tall, and has been named Kongonaphon kely or “tiny bug slayer”.
It ate insects, and may have survived because it didn’t compete with larger, meat-eating creatures, the researchers believe.
It’s thought to have been an ancestor of both dinosaurs and pterosaurs – and could answer important questions about their evolution, the researchers believe – such as whether dinosaurs had ‘fuzz’ on their skins.
“There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants,” said Christian Kammerer, a research curator in paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
“But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it’s shockingly small.”
Dinosaurs and pterosaurs both belong to the group Ornithodira, but their origins, however, are poorly known, as few specimens from near the root of this lineage have been found.
The fossils of Kongonaphon were discovered in 1998 in Madagascar by a team of researchers led by American Museum of Natural History Frick curator of fossil mammals John Flynn.
Flynn said: “This fossil site in southwestern Madagascar from a poorly known time interval globally has produced some amazing fossils, and this tiny specimen was jumbled in among the hundreds we’ve collected from the site over the years.
“It took some time before we could focus on these bones, but once we did, it was clear we had something unique and worth a closer look.
“This is a great case for why field discoveries, combined with modern technology to analyse the fossils recovered is still so important.”
Kongonaphon isn’t the first small animal known near the root of the ornithodiran family tree, but previously, such specimens were considered “isolated exceptions to the rule,” Kammerer noted.
In general, the scientific thought was that body size remained similar among the first archosaurs and the earliest ornithodirans, before increasing to gigantic proportions, the researchers say.