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2020, Year of the Deeply Ancient Beasts

2020, Year of the Deeply Ancient Beasts

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Pterodactylus is an extinct genus of pterosaurs whose members are commonly known as pterodactyls. Pterodactylus antiquus was the first pterosaur to be named and identified as a flying reptile, while Terrordactyl was an awesome 2016 movie where ancient flying reptiles attacked Los Angeles. Now, an international team has uncovered an astounding discovery based on remains found in northeast China. Make way for the amazing Monkeydactyl, the earliest known opposed thumb flying reptile that lived 160 million years ago.

The Monkeydactyl and its Surprising Opposed Thumbs

Properly named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, the small-sized pterosaur’s fossil was found in a slab of stone in north-east China. With a wingspan around 2.8 feet (85 cm), the opposed thumb flying reptile lived in trees and grasped branches. For a full and detailed description of creature you can read a new paper published in the journal Current Biology. However, for now, the upshot is that this find represents “the earliest-known example of an opposed thumb has been discovered on a new species of tree-dwelling flying reptile.” To keep things straight, you should know that opposed thumbs, like ours, are known to scientists as “pollex”.

Monkeydactyl was uncovered from the Tiaojishan rock formations of Liaoning, a coastal province in northeast China where it lived 160 million years ago. Pollex can be found on other mammals and tree frogs but but the paper says that with the exception of the chameleon, having opposable thumbs “is rare among reptiles.” In conclusion, the new find reveals that the family Darwinopteran pterosaurs, that includes the Monkeydactyl, “also evolved opposed thumbs, a structure never before seen in flying reptiles.”

The Monkeydactyl’s fossilized hand is evidence of the opposable thumb. (X Zhou et. al. / Current Biology)

The Monkeydactyl’s fossilized hand is evidence of the opposable thumb. (X Zhou et. al. / Current Biology)

The Further Surprises of the Dino-Eggs!

The fascinating and colorful ancient creature was discovered in the Tiaojishan palaeoforest which the paper’s coauthor, Xuanyu Zhou of the China University of Geosciences, said “is home to many organisms including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs.” The researchers said the results of the new paper show that K. antipollicatus has occupied “a different niche from Darwinopteran and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs.”

Vertebrate palaeontologist Rodrigo Pêgas was another author of the new paper and he told Science Daily that Darwinopterans are a group of pterosaurs from the Jurassic of China and Europe that takes it name from the naturalist Charles Darwin. Due to their “unique transitional anatomy” the researchers were able to track and discover how evolution affected the anatomy of pterosaurs throughout time. Furthermore, a particular darwinopteran fossil has been preserved with two “associated eggs,” that the scientists say “reveals clues to pterosaur reproduction.”

Full artwork of the recently discovered Monkeydactyl, the 160-million-year-old flying reptile discovered in northeast China. (Chuang Zhao / Current Biology)

Full artwork of the recently discovered Monkeydactyl, the 160-million-year-old flying reptile discovered in northeast China. (Chuang Zhao / Current Biology)

Dining, But Not Living in the Trees

In an article published in the Daily Mail, palaeontologist Fion Waisum Ma of the University of Birmingham says that the fingers of Monkeydactyl were “tiny and partly embedded in a slab.” Micro-CT scanning enable the researchers to “see through the rocks, create digital models and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones.” The professor said the creature has “the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn’t known for having an opposed thumb.”

Monkeydactyl might have been able to use its hands to grasp foods and to hold onto tree branches, which the scientists say hints that it was likely “adapted to arboreal life.” The scientists say Monkeydactyl occupied different ecological niches, but it was not adapted to living in trees, like most other pterosaur species alive 160 million years ago.

2021 Brings Double Thumbers and Top Predators

This all comes only weeks after USA TODAY announced the discovery of a “meat-eating dinosaur” in Argentina. According to another new study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, this dinosaur's full name comes from the native Mapuche language for "one who causes fear" – Llukalkan – and the Latin for "different skull" – aliocranianus.

The researchers concerned claim that the Llukalkan aliocranianus beast was “among the top predators” throughout Patagonia, located in modern-day Argentina, during the Late Cretaceous Period. “The one who causes fear” was described as “formidable in size with an extremely powerful bite, sharp teeth, huge claws and keen sense of smell.” It seems like 2021 is set to be the year of the dinosaur.

Top image: Scientists have discovered a new dinosaur. The Monkeydactyl is said to be the earliest known example of an opposed thumb in a tree-dwelling flying reptile. Source: Chuang Zhao/ Current Biology

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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