Dubbed Kryptodrakon progenitor, the beast had a wingspan of 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) as it flew the Jurassic skies about 163 million years ago.
The new species gets its first name from the Latin krypto (hidden) and drakon (serpent), a nod to the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was filmed in the desert where the species was discovered. Progenitor refers to its status as the oldest known pterodactyl.
Scientists first discovered fragments of Kryptodrakon’s delicate fossils in 2001 in northwestern China’s remote Shishiugou Formation. That geologic formation has been called a “dinosaur death pit” because ancient quicksand entombed so many prehistoric creatures there.
At first, Kryptodrakon’s bones were misidentified as belonging to a type of two-legged dinosaur called a theropod, said James Clark.
It wasn’t until another scientist assembled the fossil parts into a skeleton several years later that “I looked at it and said, ‘That’s not a theropod, that’s a pterosaur.’ And the rest is history,” said Clark, a biologist at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Pterodactyls are a type of pterosaur, a wider group of flying reptiles that went extinct 66 million years ago.
Because pterodactyl bones are so fragile, little is known about the origins of the ancient dinosaur relative, which eventually evolved into the biggest creature ever to take wing.