In 2010, paleontologists Lü Jun-chang, Fucha Xiao-hui, and Chen Jin-mei named Fenghuangopterus lii, a small pterosaur from Liaoning, China. Fenghuangopterus was found in rocks of the Tiaojishan Formation, famous for its exquisitely preserved Middle Jurassic fossils. Fenghuangopterus is named for Fenghuang Mountain in Liaoning, but also references the mythological bird known as a “Fenghuang,” sometimes considered to be a Chinese phoenix.
It’s known from a single well-preserved specimen, made up of a mostly complete skull with teeth; the neck, torso, and base of the tail; both shoulders and wings, and the hips and both legs. The skull is crushed and can be seen from the left side with much of the palate and interior side of the right mandible visible. Its total length was just under 8 cm (just over 3 inches) and is roughly triangular in profile. The upper jaws have 11 teeth on each side, and are widely spaced. The oral margin of the upper jaw isn’t a straight line, instead the gaps between the teeth are concave. The teeth themselves are narrow and conical in cross-section, and slightly recurved. Unlike many pterosaurs of the Jurassic, the teeth of Fenghuangopterus are oriented more-or-less vertically.
The remainder of the skeleton is largely present and articulated, missing only the tips of both wings, and the middle and end of the tail. From snout to hips, the body was roughly 30 cm (12 inches) long and the total wingspan is roughly 95 cm (three feet). In life, Fenghuangopterus was roughly the same size as a pileated woodpecker, but with longer, narrower wings. Only the base of the tail is preserved, but similar pterosaurs had fairly long tails that were mobile at the base and stiffer at the end. Additionally, many well-preserved specimens of complete long-tailed pterosaur tails show vertical vanes and other ornaments at their tips, so it’s likely that Fenghuangopterus was similarly adorned.
Lü and colleagues regarded Fenghuangopterus as the earliest scaphoganthine, a small group of long-tailed pterosaurs with distinctive teeth and jaws known from Late Jurassic rocks. In addition to Fenghuangopterus, this group also includes Scaphognathus from Germany, Sordes from Kazakhstan, and Harpactoganthus from the USA. Scaphognathines are members of the Rhamphorhynchidae, a large family of fish-eating pterosaurs known from the Middle and Late Jurassic. Most other rhamphorhynchids have teeth oriented forward and outward, unlike scaphognathines. The rhamphorhynchids are among the pterosaurs most closely related to the short-tailed pterodactyloids which originated in the Late Jurassic and would come to dominate the Cretaceous skies.
Rhamphorhynchids had relatively long and narrow wings, similar to living swifts and swallows. The narrow wings and long tail allowed rhamphorhynchids to be fast and acrobatic fliers. Fenghuangopterus was a carnivore that focused largely on fish, and the environment of the Tiaojishan Formation at the time it was deposited was a temperate forest with a large number of lakes and rivers, offering many opportunities for hunting.