Discovery of Miniature Ancestor to the Dinosaur Uncovers Prehistoric Insight
By: Amy Dong
On July 6, 2020, a team of researchers led by American Museum of Natural History Curator John Flynn published a study highlighting the discovery of a small ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, named the Kongonaphon kely, at a fossil site in southwestern Madagascar. This discovery may explain the origins of traits found in its descendants.
The name Kongonaphon kely means “tiny bug slayer,” with fossilized evidence pointing to a diet of insects. The reptile was estimated to be only ten centimeters tall, yet research has found Kongonaphon to originate from the Ornithodira group: the same family tree of dinosaurs and the flying pterosaurs. This discovery allows the scientific community greater insight into the earlier roots of ornithodirans, especially considering the lack of knowledge surrounding the early evolution of this family tree.
The most prominent example of these insights can be seen foremost from the differences in body sizes between these two distant relatives. “There’s a general perception of dinosaurs as being giants, but this new animal is very close to the divergence of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and it's shockingly small,” said Christian Kammerer, a research curator in paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
The Kongonaphan’s small stature denotes a change in body size during ornithodira evolution, strongly indicating that the earliest ornithodirans may have begun with significantly small body size. The nature of the Kongonaphan’s insect-eating diet, as suggested from an examination of its teeth, may have presented a biological advantage while scouring for resources, allowing early ornithodirans to fuel their smaller bodies without competing against the carnivorous species inhabiting the terrain. Likewise, this body size also presents evidence for the presence of a fuzzy skin covering, which is necessary for retaining the heat that their smaller bodies cannot maintain as easily. The presence of a covering has been noted on both dinosaurs and pterosaurs in the forms of filaments or feathers, and the Kongonaphan’s discovery may be able to attribute the origins of these traits.
Before the discovery of the Kongonaphan, scientific consensus believed that body size among the earliest archosaurs remained consistently large, and that smaller stature specimens were attributed as isolated outliers. As stated by project co-leader Lovasoa Ranivoharimanana, "Discoveries like this helps people in Madagascar and around the world better appreciate the exceptional record of ancient life preserved in the rocks of our country."