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Scientists discover the "Monkeydactyl" — a Jurassic-era flying dinosaur with opposable thumbs

It soared across the skies, had opposable thumbs and lived in China during the Jurassic era: Meet the "Monkeydactyl" — a newly discovered ancient dinosaur. 

The bizarre Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, appropriately nicknamed the Monkeydactyl, lived in a forest ecosystem 160 million years ago, an international team of researchers said in a report published in the journal Current Biology on Monday. Antipollicatus means "opposite thumbed" in ancient Greek. 

Pterosaurs were the first known vertebrates to fly, researchers said. The arboreal pterosaur species marks the oldest of its kind with true opposable thumbs, a phenomenon never before seen in the species. 

The discovery also marks the earliest known record of a true opposed thumb in the history of Earth. 

Scientists found the Monkeydactyl fossil in the Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning, China in September 2019. Using micro-CT scans to enlarge the anatomical features, they found the small fossil preserved both hands, which featured an opposed "pollex," or thumb, on each. 

Artist's interpretation of K. antipollicatus. Chuang Zhao

"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab. Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones," co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a statement. "This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."

An opposed thumb is extremely rare among reptiles — they are commonly found in humans and other mammals. 

Researchers say the Monkeydactly, a type of darwinopteran, named for Charles Darwin, used the thumb for climbing and grasping, an adaptation for living in trees. In addition to the thumbs, researchers determined the animal to be very small, with a wingspan of about 33 inches. 

It managed to avoid most competition in its complex forest habitat, which featured closely-related species that adapted into different niches.

"Darwinopterans are a group of pterosaurs from the Jurassic of China and Europe, named after Darwin due to their unique transitional anatomy that has revealed how evolution affected the anatomy of pterosaurs throughout time," said co-author Rodrigo V. Pêgas. "On top of that, a particular darwinopteran fossil has been preserved with two associated eggs, revealing clues to pterosaur reproduction. They've always been considered precious fossils for these reasons and it is impressive that new darwinopteran species continue to surprise us!"

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