The great T-rex has captured the imagination of people and movie animators worldwide, and more belatedly we bless our gods that we never met the velociraptor. But they’re neither the chicken nor the egg. Nor is the pterodactyl. The great family of ornithodiran – or bird-hipped – dinosaurs had to have been preceded by an animal of more modest dimensions, paleontologists have always assumed, but fossils of the root of this lineage have been extremely elusive.
Now Christian F. Kammerer of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and colleagues report in PNAS on discovering an early ornithodiran all of 4 inches (10 centimeters) tall, on the island of Madagascar. The nano-dino struck terror into Triassic ants and beetles as it reared up on its matchstick legs some 240 million years ago.
The newfound creature has been named Kongonaphon kely – based on the Malagasy for “tiny bug slayer.” It featured the hallmark fangs of its later, somewhat more impressive, relatives, and it too was a bipedal predator.
However, the wear patterns on its adorable little conical teeth suggest its prey were insects, the team says.
This nano-relative of bipedal dinosaurs and pterosaurs lived in what is now Madagascar roughly 237 million years ago, the middle to late Triassic.
About the same size as a tyrannosaur’s claw, was Kongonaphon ancestral to the roaring Rex (and no, nobody knows if they really roared)? It is impossible to say, but it was at least an early relation of the whole group, and fits the theory of a miniature origin for the Jurassic giants – which include pterosaurs, some of which were so gigantic that many wondered if they could even heave themselves off the ground, let alone stay aloft. (Yes, they could, possibly exploiting air currents to glide as much as possible.)
Even if the Kongonaphon was only a very distant relative of the T-rex and not ancestral, it does support the theory that the ancestral bird-hipped dinosaurs could have nipped your ankle, not ripped out your jugular, unless you had fallen down and weren't moving.
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Also, it lends to the theory that the ancestral ornithodirans were widespread but even tinier than had been thought.
Snigger not. Our distant ancestors looked like rats and ate insects too. In any case, Kongonaphon’s daintiness could explain why ancestral stem ornithodirans are so rare in the fossil record. Matchstick bones do not preserve easily or well.
The wee proto-ornithodiran may also shed light on the evolution of body covering. At 10 centimeters tall and frail at that, the little thing would have found it difficult to retain body heat, and the Triassic was a time of climatic extremes, the authors point out. Which may explain the evolution of feathers in stem dinosaurs. By now, paleontologists suspect that feathering was the ancestral condition and the giants may have secondarily then lost it (like whales lost their feet), maybe retaining anklets of feathers like elephants retain hairs here and there.
Anyway, it is now clear that both the dinosaur and pterosaur sides of the ornithodiran tree had body cover and that, say the authors, could have been because of their shivering micro-ancestor, something like Kongonaphon.
The artist’s impression shows an adorable little lizard-like Kongonaphon with russet feathering, spotted to camouflage itself against larger lizardly predators, and turning its head having just noticed its lunch on a leaf.
We don’t know that it had reddish feathers or spotting; that’s artistic license. Much progress has been made, however, on deducing the coloration of dinosaur feathers and even the color of their eggs.
Konganaphon also long predated the teacup tyrannosaurs like the Suskityrannus, which at 3 feet tall weighed about the same as a fat Labrador; and the equally diminutive Moros intrepidus, the “harbinger of doom” to early mammals and small lizards. They lived in Cretaceous North America. These two mini-rexes lived roughly in the middle of tyrannosaurian evolution.
The true giants, like the type so beloved of movie producers, lived later, from about 80 million years ago until the notorious asteroid struck the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago. There have been other theories behind the extinction of practically all the dinosaurs, including intense volcanism in India at about the same time, but the latest conventional wisdom is that the asteroid did it. And now we know that some dinosaurs in the bird-hipped lineage did survive the geological carnage. They became the chicken and the egg.