Fossils shake dinosaur family tree

By | December 11, 2009

Fossils shake dinosaur family tree

Paleontologists, aided by amateur volunteers, have unearthed a previously unknown meat-eating dinosaur from a fossil bone bed in northern New Mexico, settling a debate about early dinosaur evolution, revealing a period of explosive diversification and hinting at how dinosaurs spread across the supercontinent Pangaea.

The description of the new species, named Tawa after the Hopi word for the Puebloan sun god, appears in the Dec. 10 issue of the journal Science in a paper lead-authored by Sterling Nesbitt, a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. Nesbitt conducted the research with his colleagues while a graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the American Museum of Natural History.

The fossil bones of several individuals were recovered, but the type specimen is a nearly complete skeleton of a juvenile that stood about 28 inches (70 cm) tall at the hips and was about 6 feet (2 meters) long from snout to tail. Its body was about the size of a large dog, but with a much longer tail. It lived about 214 million years ago, plus or minus a million. The specimens are remarkable because they show little sign of being flattened during fossilization.

Tawa is part of a group of dinosaurs known as theropods, which includes T. Rex and Velociraptor. Theropods for the most part ate meat, walked on two legs and had feathers. Though most went extinct by 65 million years ago, some lineages survived to spawn modern birds.

One of Tawa‘s most important contributions to science has to do with what it says about another dinosaur, Herrerasaurus, the center of a lively debate since its discovery in Argentina in the 1960s. Herrerasaurus had some traits in common with theropods–including large claws, carnivorous teeth and certain pelvic features–but lacked other theropod traits such as pockets in vertebrae for airsacs. Some paleontologists claimed it was so unusual it was outside the evolutionary tree of theropods, or even of dinosaurs. Others placed it among the earliest theropods.

“The question was did those carnivorous traits arise in Herrerasaurus and in theropods independently or were they traits from a recent common ancestor that got passed down,” said Nesbitt. “We had so few specimens of early theropods that it was hard to answer that question. But now that we have Tawa, we think we have an answer.”

Tawa had a mix of Herrerasaurus-like characteristics (for example, in the pelvis) and features found in firmly established theropod dinosaurs (for example, pockets for airsacs in the backbone). Therefore, the characteristics that Herrerasaurus shares uniquely with theropods such as Tawa confirm the characteristics didn’t arise independently and that Herrerasaurus is indeed a theropod.

The firm placement of Herrerasaurus within the theropod lineage points up an interesting fact about dinosaur evolution: once they appeared, they very rapidly diversified into the three main dinosaur lineages that persisted for more than 170 million years. …

via Fossils shake dinosaur family tree » Research.

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