He was called Kongonaphon Kely, which means “little insect hunter”, and was about the size of a cup of coffee. But great things are in sight for this little creature. Really very big things.
The tiny insect hunter, who lived in Madagascar about 237 million years ago during the Triassic period, was only 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) tall. However, scientists say K. kely it belonged to the ancient Ornithodira group: the last common ancestor of all the dinosaurs and pterosaurs that would one day reign in the wake of the insect killer.
“There is a general perception of dinosaurs as giants,” says paleontologist Christian Kammerer of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
“But this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs and is incredibly small.”
How did such colossal creatures from so modest origins evolve? The answer has never been entirely clear, since relatively few specimens of the Ornithodira root lineage have ever been discovered and studied.
That’s why the old bones of the insect killer are so important. They were first found during fieldwork in 1998 in a fossil site in southwestern Madagascar, along with the remains of hundreds of other ancient specimens.
“It took a while before we could concentrate on these bones, but once it was done, it was clear that we had something unique and worth taking a closer look,” says American paleontologist John Flynn Museum of Natural History.
K. kely it is the smallest known species in a family of early dinosauromorphs called Lagerpetidae. These early examples of Ornithodira are known to be small, but with recent discoveries such as the little insect hunter, researchers are coming to the idea that the smallness of the discovered specimens is no accident.
“Although dinosaurs and gigantism are practically synonymous, an analysis of the evolution of body size in dinosaurs and other archosaurs in the context of this taxon and related forms shows that previously divergent group members may have been smaller than previously thought, and that a profound miniaturization event occurred near the base of the avian stem lineage, “the team writes in a new document.
Over it: Body size comparison between Kongonaphon kely and the first Herrerasaurus dinosaur.
The evidence to support this comes in the form of tiny insect hunter teeth and punctured abrasions on them, consistent with a diet of hard-shelled insects, says the team. If they are right, it is possible that these ancestors of small dinosaurs and pterosaurs adapted their small frames to “invade resource areas not previously occupied by archosaurs” as a sort of evolutionary advantage.
In doing so, it is also possible that the transition to this small body helped K. kely and his archosaur peers unlock and develop other traits that would become a pillar of the survival of their descendants: innovations in bipedal movement, origins of fluff to heat small bodies, and even the start of flight, the researchers suggest.
Obviously, the little insect hunter hasn’t been able to see or enjoy all this alone. But those ambitious ones tomorrow had some of their beginnings here.
The results are reported in PNAS.