Darwinopteran Pterosaur Discovered in China with Opposable Thumbs!

The field of paleontology gains a truly historic discovery as Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, the very first pterosaur with opposable thumbs is discovered thanks to an immaculately preserved fossil, giving us a nearly complete skeleton. This discovery is beyond profound in its implications for pterosaur evolution, and will be remembered as a crucial revelation in helping us understand the roles of pterosaurs in Earth’s prehistoric ecosystems.

Reconstruction of Kunpengopterus antipollicatus in the Tiaojishan Paleoforest, here depicted climbing an ancient gingko tree and using it’s characteristic hands to hold insect prey. Artist credit: Chuang Zhao.

Belonging to an enigmatic subgroup of pterosaurs known as darwinopterans (Named after the iconic Charles Darwin), Kunpengopterus was a transitional Pterosaur and among some of Earth’s earliest pterosaurs, making it a particularly interesting discovery as it aids our understanding of the forms pterosaurs took as they found their ecological niches. Kunpengopterus’s most striking features are its hands. This pterosaur demonstrates the earliest known case of true opposable thumbs in all of Earth’s history, and thanks to this feature we can extrapolate a significant amount about Kunpengopterus’s lifestyle.

In this visual representation of early pterosaur evolution, Kunpengopterus’s subgroup is underlined, showing off its position relative to other early pterosaur forms.

Living in a densely arboreal ecosystem, Kunpengopterus would have likely spent most of its life in the trees, away from the dangers of the mesozoic forest floor and free to dine, sleep, and socialize among the branches of sprawling prehistoric forest growth. Paleontologists noted that Kunpengopterus probably occupied a very different niche to its contemporary evolutionary cousins, like Wukongopterus and the namesake for the evolutionary subgroup: Darwinopterus, leading to minimal, if any competition between them. Analyzing the fossil’s implied musculature, paleontologists were able to say with certainty that Kunpengopterus would have used it’s hands for grasping and increased mobility while climbing, leading some to give it the surreal nickname: “Monkeydactyl”.

Another reconstruction of Kunpengopterus. Artist Credit: Joschua Knuppe.

Living in an unbelievably rich ecosystem, Kunpengopterus would have shared it’s habitat with a massive array of other pterosaurs: ramphorhynchids, scaphognathids, anurognathids, and wukongopterids just to name a fraction. The “Tiaojishan Paleoforest”, as it’s been coined by Dr. Xuanyu Zhou at China’s Unversity of Geosciences, was, remarkably devoid of any large animals. No fossilized animal in this ecosystem has been discovered to have a body length larger than a meter. This could just be because the smaller animals are the only ones that got fossilized, by hanging around places with good fossilization conditions like rivers, lakes, etc. while the giants got broken down entirely by the forest. Regardless, the discovery of such a fantastically unique creature such as Kunpengopterus is nothing short of monumental, and it makes me wonder what else this year has in store for the field of paleontology.

Holotype specimen of Kunpengopterus antipollicatus (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bar – 50 mm. Abbreviations: ca – caudal series, cri – cervical rib, cv – cervical vertebra, d – digit, de – dentary, fe – femur, hu – humerus, hy – hyoid apparatus, mc – metacarpal, ph – phalanx, pop.il – postacetabular process of the illium, pp – prepubis, pt – pteroid, rd – radius, sk – skull, ti – tibia, ul – ulna. Image credit: Zhou et al., doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.030.

  • Xuanyu Zhou et al. A new darwinopteran pterosaur reveals arborealism and an opposed thumb. Current Biology, published online April 12, 2021; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.030

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