CHICAGO (AFP) - Paleontologists have discovered the fossil of a new species of tiny prehistoric flying reptile in northeastern China, a study released Monday said.
The miniature reptile lived about 120 million years ago and was about the size of a sparrow, with a wingspan less than a foot across.
It was toothless and had some unique anatomical features, notably curved claws that appeared to be designed to clutch tree limbs.
The team that discovered its fossilized remains in western Liaoning Province suspect it lived in the canopies of ancient Chinese forests and fed on insects.
The discovery is startling in several respects, not least because it is rare to find the fossils of any pterosaur ("winged lizard" in Greek), never mind an entirely new species.
But it also has implications for the understanding of the evolution of pterosaurs -- a group of reptiles that evolved powered flight and that cruised the skies as long ago as 230 million years, finally dying out 65 million years ago, the authors of the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said.
"It opens a new chapter in the evolutionary history of pterosaurs," said Alexander Kellner, a professor of paleontology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and a lead author on the paper.
The new species, which Kellner and his team dubbed Nemicolopterus crypticus ("hidden flying forest dweller" in Greek), crops up in a branch of the reptile family tree that is characterized by much larger, fish-eating pterosaurs.
The pterosaurs belonging to this family -- Dsungaripteroidea -- or closely related ones, had wingspans measuring a meter (three feet) across. In some cases they were gigantic creatures, measuring six meters (18 feet) from one wingtip to the other.
The discovery of Nemicolopterus crypticus, and the fact that it belonged to a class or family of reptiles that occurred at an advanced stage in the evolution of the species, suggests these later reptiles were much more closely related to primitive looking pterosaurs than previously thought.
It's not clear whether this branch of the family tree contained other primitive-type forest dwellers, or whether Nemicolopterus crypticus was an anomaly.
"It could have died out and that was it," said Kellner. "Or there might have been a whole history of pterosaurs that lived in the canopies of trees, not just in China, but in other parts of the world as well."