Nemicolopterus crypticus: A baby pterosaur, or just small?
Size: 10 inches (25 centimeters) from wingtip to wingtip.
Time Period: The Aptian stage of the Early Cretaceous Period.
Locale: The Jiufotang Formation of China.
Name: The generic name means “forest-dwelling wing,” in reference to the animal’s presumed forest habitat. The specific name means “hidden.”
Pterosaurs astonish us humans because they were strange prehistoric creatures that lived in the sky. They looked a bit like birds, but were incredibly foreign in comparison to our feathered friends. Most astonishing of all is the size of some pterosaurs. Animals like Hatzegopteryx and Aerotitan grew to sizes never seen in other flying animals. However, not all pterosaurs were as huge and macho as the azhdarchids. Some were pretty tiny.
One such “ptiny pterosaur” is Nemicolopterus, a Chinese pterodactyloid that is currently identified as the smallest pterosaur of all. However, there might not be as much truth to this as you’d think. The fossil specimen is actually smaller than any (excepting a choice few) hatchling pterosaur, but it isn’t fully grown. Darren Naish has argued that, since pterosaurs are able to be out and about from an early age, bone fusion and ossification can occur very quickly. Factoring this into our catalog of Jiufotang faunal assemblages, we can guess that Nemicolopterus may be a hatchling of the genus Sinopterus, a decently sized tapejarid from the same area.
All that discussion aside, there are some concrete conclusions to be made about this little fellow. Nemicolopterus is toothless, and may be an intermediate between the ornithocheiroids and dsungaripteroids. Though Nemicolopterus isn’t the best representative of its relatives’ size, some of its relatives may have evolved into the aforementioned macho pterosaurs (such as Aerotitan).
We can also confidently assert that we know just about where Nemicolopterus lived. Since this pterosaur demonstrates adaptions for grasping tree branches, it may have hunted for insects and lived in the canopy of a forest. Though most pterosaurs are known from marine sediments, and would have probably caught fish in the sea and landed on nearby structures to eat and mate, it’s clear that Nemicolopterus was found in the continental interior of its area, making it one of the few pterosaurs known to live in such a habitat. Other inland pterosaurs include Quetzalcoatlus, a “Ptexan pterosaur” whose inland habitat was originally given as evidence that it was a vulture-like scavenger. Tapejaridae, the family that Sinopterus (Nemicolopterus’s presumed adult version) belongs to, also shows similar adaptions despite the fact that some were marine.
So, though Nemicolopterus may have only been a juvenile specimen of Sinopterus, it’s still interesting. It might make us reconsider our phylogenetic assignments of other small pterosaurs, and it is one of the few inland pterosaurs discovered thus far. As we have piece together the puzzle of pterosaur “ptylogeny (okay, I tried),” we find that a bit more investigation may be required to correctly determine the identity of some flying reptiles, even our forest-dwelling pal.