A newly discovered pterosaur is a missing link in the evolution of the flying dinosaurs. The beast has sharp pointy teeth and jaws like more modern species, but a tail and hind legs like older species.  (Source: Lü Junchang/Geological Institute, Beijing)

An artist's rendition shows the aerial predator attacking an early bird.  (Source: Mark Witton/Univ. of Portsmouth)
Another great paleontological discovery hits, this time a former master of the skies

The pterosaur family of flying reptiles, often referred to as pterodactyls, used to rule the skies.  Like the eagles of today, only on a much larger scale, some pterodactyl species terrorized prey both on the ground and in the air.  Other species feasted on fish, much like today's pelicans, or subsisted on insects, like today's bats.

The past few weeks have been packed with groundbreaking announcements in the field of paleontology.  A new T-Rex ancestor was found; and in Africa, the earliest hominid species was found.  Now yet another breakthrough fossil find has been catalogued, and this time it's none other than the pterodactyl.

The newly discovered pterodactyl has been named Darwinopterus (for “Darwin’s wing”).  It was found in China earlier this year when approximately 20 skeletons were uncovered.  The skeletons revealed a creature that lived 160 million years ago, according to dating methods, and serves as a long-predicted Frankenstein-like link between more ancient pterosaur species and more modern ones.

Ancient pterosaurs had a long tail and tend to be smaller.  More recent pterosaurs, such as those found in the Cretaceous era, had short tails and some species could reach mammoth sizes. 

The recent find features a mix of these features, with a tail and hind legs like the older pterosaurs, but pointy teeth and a head/neck shape both almost identical to later species.  This indicates that at some future point along the evolutionary ladder the genes encoding tail elongation likely dropped out, but the reptile had evolved a body conducive to the change.  These conclusion lend credence to the controversial theory of modular evolution, which indicates that features evolve in chunks, due to selective forces.

Unlike pterosaurs to come, though, Darwinopterus was relatively small -- about the size of a large crow.  It's jaws suggest that it hunted like a hawk, snatching flying creatures like bugs. 

Dave Unwin of the University of Leicester in England, who coauthored a paper reporting the findings online October 14 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, lauds the discovery as a freakish and unique find.  He states, "It’s as if someone said, ‘Let’s nail these two together and make a sort of chimera, that’ll really confuse everybody."

Lately the microbiology and genetics research fields have been getting ahead of the fossil records when it comes to evolution.  Now the roles are reversed and these fields must catch up to this discovery.  States Professor Unwin, "The great thing about Darwinopterus is that it’s an example of modular evolution. It provides hard evidence for that kind of pattern.  The challenge now is to find the genetic mechanism that would allow this to happen."

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