<i>‘Missing link' pterosaur found in China </i>
Chinese and British palaeontologists have identified a crow-sized fossil that they believe fills a key gap in our understanding of the mysterious flying reptiles known as pterosaurs.
The species has been baptised Darwinopterus modularis in honour of Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago and 150 years ago published his ground-breaking work on evolution, "On the Origin of Species."
The five palaeontologists, reporting on Wednesday in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, say more than 20 fossilised skeletons of the newly-uncovered species were found in northeastern China earlier this year.
The finds were unearthed from rocks dated at around 160 million years ago, which places them close to the boundary line between the Middle and Late Jurassic periods, and at least 10 million years older than the first recognised bird, Archaeopteryx.
Darwinopterus appears to be intermediary between primitive, long-tailed pterosaurs -- sometimes called pterodactyls -- and their descendants, who were short-tailed, more sophisticated flyers that sometimes reached gigantic sizes.
"Darwinopterus came as quite a shock to us," David Unwin of the University of Leicester, central England, said in a press release.
"We had always expected a gap-filler with typically intermediate features such as a moderately elongated tail -- neither long nor short -- but the strange thing about Darwinopterus is that it has a head and neck just like that of advanced pterosaurs, while the rest of the skeleton, including a very long tail, is identical to that of primitive forms."
Darwinopterus had long jaws, rows of sharp teeth and a flexible-looking neck, which suggests it may have survived on the wing by snatching small mammals or pigeon-sized feathery dinosaurs that were the forerunners of birds.
"Darwinopterus" means "Darwin's wing", while "modularis" means composed of interchangeable units.
The investigators, led by Junchang Lu of the Institute of Geology in Beijing, believe that pterosaurs went through bursts of evolution characterised by swift changes to groups of features.
The head and neck evolved first, followed later by the body, tail, wings and legs, they contend.