The oldest known ancestor of pterodactyls has been identified and named from a fossil originally discovered in 2001 in China. An international research team led by University of South Florida paleontologist Brian Andres, James Clark of the George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, and Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences identified the fossils. The discovery was announced in the April 24, 2014, edition of the journal Current Biology.
The fragments of the 163-millio-year-old fossil were originally discovered in a mudstone from the Shishugou Formation of northwest China. Pterosaurs were not dinosaurs but were closely related to dinosaurs. All species of pterosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago. The animal was named Kryptodrakon progenitor. The name means first-born hidden serpent. The name is an indication of the fossils being the oldest known pterodactyloid pterosaur ever found, the depth of the location where the fossils were found, and a nod to the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that was filmed near the area where the fossils were discovered.
The wingspan of Kryptodrakon progenitor is estimated to be about 4.5 feet. This size is considered tiny in comparison to some of the animal’s descendants that had wingspans of more than 60 feet. Some later pterosaurs were so large that they are thought to have flown from South America to the coasts of Britain. The size of Kryptodrakon progenitor is similar to the few fossil species of pterodactyloid pterosaur found in Europe that date to 13 million years earlier than Kryptodrakon progenitor. This is the second pterosaur found in the Shishugou Formation.
The fossil fills in a five million year gap in the fossil record of the Pterodactyloidea. The shape of the head and the single appendage in the wing that was found in Kryptodrakon progenitor is characteristic of all the known fossils of the species. Kryptodrakon progenitor was terrestrial and probably lived on or near lakes. The majority of the known descendants of Kryptodrakon progenitor lived near the oceans of the ancient world.