Q&A: The GW professor who discovered the oldest pterodactyl

This interview was conducted by contributing news editor Jacqueline Thomsen.

GW biology professor James Clark has published a study about the discovery of the oldest pterodactyloid fossil ever found. After unearthing the 163 million-year-old fossil in China’s Gobi Desert in 2001, Clark and his team later identified the remains as those of kryptodrakon progenitor.

The Hatchet spoke with Clark to find out more about the finding of the ancient flying reptile, the unexpected story behind the species’ name and what the discovery means to the field of paleontology. The interview has been edited for length.

Hatchet: How did you set yourself on the path to uncovering the oldest known pterodactyl?

Clark: I was working in Mongolia with the American Museum of Natural History in New York and starting in 1991, we were going every summer to Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, to collect fossils. I later met with a paleontology student in Beijing, and that student asked about field work. I was like, ‘Yes, I want to do field work in China,’ and I had an area in mind that I’d visited once that no one had really exploited much. So we decided to go there, and then we spent basically 10 years going there collecting a lot of fossils.

Hatchet: How did you come into collaboration with your co-researchers Xu Xing and Brian Andres?

Clark: The student [I just mentioned] was Xu Xing, and I was on his dissertation committee. Once he graduated, he became probably one of the most famous paleontologists in China. Brian Andres was a master’s student with me, so he came out with us into the field in 2001 and 2002 as well and got his master’s with me, studying pterodactyls. Then he went up to Yale and got his Ph.D., and we collaborated on a couple of papers from our work in China.

Hatchet: How did you discover this new fossil?

Clark: The process is you go out walking and looking for things. Everyone spreads out from camp, and we found lots of things that [first] year. One fellow who found two really good things that year was Chris Sloan, who was actually working at National Geographic as an editor at the time and was visiting us out in the field. He found this really great crocodilian skull that we published a while ago, and he also found this very fragmentary fossil that we first thought was a theropod dinosaur. It wasn’t until we got it back into the laboratory that I realized it was a pterosaur. So then I brought Brian into the project, and he figured out that not only was it a pterosaur, it was a pterodactyloid pterosaurs.

Hatchet: How did you come up with the name krypotdraken progenitor?

Clark: That was Brian’s. The desert scenes in the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” were actually filmed right in the area where we collected our fossils in the far western Gobi Desert. We named another fossil with a Chinese name which means “hidden dragon,” so Brian decided to name this one Kryptodraken, which is “hidden dragon” in Greek. To that he added “progenitor” because it’s the oldest pterodactyl.

Hatchet: What does this discovery mean for the future of paleontology?

Clark: What it does is it pushes back that record. What we did in our paper was to analyze not only the fossil itself but where it came from, which is basically far inland, whereas most of the pterosaur fossils are from oceans deposits. We pointed out that it looks like the pterodactyl arose inland away from the ocean and that may be related to how they modified their wings. So basically it puts that idea out there, and in the future that can be tested. For the future, what we’d like to do is find more of this fossil, but we haven’t yet.

Hatchet: How will you pursue this research?

Clark: We’ve got a lot of fossils. I have two graduate students right now working on fossils we’ve collected there. And we have several papers that will be coming out soon on some really neat things. We collected hundreds and hundreds of specimens, and there’s a lot we still need to work on. We’re probably not going to do too much field work in China – it’s getting a little more difficult, especially in the Xinjiang region – but we have a lot to work on.

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