The earliest known pterodactyl was a tiny flying reptile that later evolved into giant beasts the size of airplanes.

The ancient creature was technically a "pterodacyloid pterosaur" that used to fly over northwest China when dinosaurs lived on land, according to a new study published in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

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"This finding represents the earliest and most primitive pterodactyloid pterosaur, a flying reptile in a highly specialized group that includes the largest flying organisms," co-author Chris Liu, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, said in a press release.

"The research has extended the fossil record of pterodactyloids by at least five million years to the Middle-Upper Jurassic boundary about 163 million years ago."

The newly discovered animal, named Kryptodrakon progenitor, was found in a mudstone of the Shishugou Formation of northwest China. It had a wingspan of about 4.5 feet.

The name Kryptodrakon progenitor comes from Krypto (hidden) and drakon (serpent), referring to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" filmed near where the species was discovered, and progenitor (ancestral or first-born), referring to its status as the earliest pterodactyloid, said co-author and paleontologist Brian Andres of the University of South Florida.

"He fills in a very important gap in the history of pterosaurs," Andres continued. "With him, they could walk and fly in whole new ways."

K. progenitor lived at what was then a flood plain. Its wings were narrow, a shape useful for swooping around marine environments. As its later relatives evolved, they developed broader wings to facilitate flying over land.

"Kryptodrakon is the second pterosaur species we've discovered in the Shishugou Formation and deepens our understanding of this unusually diverse Jurassic ecosystem," said co-author James Clark of the George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

He continued, "It is rare for small, delicate fossils to be preserved in Jurassic terrestrial deposits, and the Shishugou fauna is giving us a glimpse of what was living alongside the behemoths like Mamenchisaurus."

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Mamenchisaurus was an enormous plant-eating dinosaur at the same place and time as the early pterodactyl. Its neck alone reached up to 31 feet, which must have been handy for reaching leaves and other edibles, not to mention intimidating carnivorous predators.

You'd think that the early flying reptiles were the ancestors of birds, but the researchers say no. Pterosaurs died out 66.5 million years ago, when the world's non-avian dinosaurs also became extinct. Some dinosaurs evolved into birds, however, with their relatives living on today.

Pterosaurs enjoyed a good run, though. They were around for millions of years and the largest known pterosaur, Hatzegopteryx thambema, had a wingspan of about 36 feet.

Image: A diagram shows the fragmentary remains of Kryptodrakon progenitor found in the famed "dinosaur death pits" area of the Shishugou Formation in northwest China. The skeletal outline is Pterodactylus antiquus reprinted with permission from Peter Wellnhofer. Scale bar is 50 mm. Illustration by Brian Andres.