Earliest filter-feeding pterosaur from the Jurassic of China and ecological evolution of Pterodactyloidea
Pterosaurs were a unique clade of flying reptiles that were contemporaries of dinosaurs in Mesozoic ecosystems. The Pterodactyloidea as the most species-diverse group of pterosaurs dominated the sky during Cretaceous time, but earlier phases of their evolution remain poorly known. Here, we describe a 160 Ma filter-feeding pterosaur from western Liaoning, China, representing the geologically oldest record of the Ctenochasmatidae, a group of exclusive filter feeders characterized by an elongated snout and numerous fine teeth. The new pterosaur took the lead of a major ecological transition in pterosaur evolution from fish-catching to filter-feeding adaptation, prior to the Tithonian (145-152 Ma) diversification of the Ctenochasmatidae. Our research shows that the rise of ctenochasmatid pterosaurs was followed by the burst of eco-morphological divergence of other pterodactyloid clades, which involved a wide range of feeding adaptations that considerably altered the terrestrial ecosystems of the Cretaceous world.