‘Tiny bug slayer’ was an ancient relative of dinosaurs and pterosaurs

Kongonaphon

A newly-described reptile species from Madagascar suggests that dinosaurs and pterosaurs (extinct flying reptiles) had an extremely small ancestor — just 10 centimetres tall. The fossil is named Kongonaphon kely which translates in the Malagasy language as ‘tiny bug slayer’. Wear on its teeth suggests that it ate insects, which helped it to survive by occupying a different niche to its mostly meat-eating relatives.

Kongonaphon provides evidence for a ‘miniaturisation event’: a sharp decrease in ancestors’ body size, before dinosaurs and pterosaurs eventually evolved to be much bigger. A tiny ancestral body size may help explain the origins of flight in pterosaurs. All flying animals seem to have evolved from very small ancestors. A smaller, lighter body is more conducive to aerial locomotion such as gliding; an important intermediary step in the origin of flight.

Its discovery may also explain the evolution of feathers in dinosaurs and pterosaurs. Kongonaphon’s habitat would have had sudden shifts in temperature between the days and the nights. A growth of feathers might have helped it to regulate its body heat.

During the time Kongonaphon was alive (around 237 million years ago), Madagascar was attached to India as part of the supercontinent Gondwana. “Triassic vertebrate fossils of similar age have been found in a band of rocks extending across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. I am confident that future work by Indian paleontologists will recover relatives of Kongonaphon,” said Christian F. Kammerer, Research Curator of Paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.