Science

Fossils of 3-foot-tall T. rex relatives are evolutionary stepping stone

Fossils of 3-foot-tall T. rex relatives are evolutionary stepping stone”

Fossils found in New Mexico belong to a previously undiscovered species of small tyrannosauroids that lived 92 million years ago, cousins of the much larger Tyrannosaurus rex.

This new tyrannosauroid species - newly named Suskityrannus hazelae - isn't quite as imposing as their fearsome relative, but they allow scientists a look into of what came before the infamous T. rex.

Suskityrannus stood at only about 3 feet tall and 9 feet long, weighing in at about 45 to 90 pounds.

By contrast, an average Tyrannosaurus rex was about 40 feet tall and weighed about nine tons and had "60 saw-edged, bone-crushing, pointed teeth", according to the National Museum of History. Its diet likely consisted of the same as its larger meat-eating counterpart, with Suskityrannus hazelae likely hunting small animals, although what it hunted is unknown.

Suskityrannus hazalae isn't the first or even smallest of the Tyrannosaurus family tree, but Nesbitt said it provides the best example of how this family of modest-sized dinosaurs evolved into the towering T. rex.

The newest dinosaur known to scientists was named Monday by a Virginia Tech paleontologist, Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor with Department of Geosciences. What makes this new dinosaur special, however, is that it's more closely related to T. rex and other tyrannosaurids than to other early Cretaceous tyrannosauroids.

In a wild twist to this discovery, Nesbitt found the fossil at age 16 whilst a high school student participating in a dig expedition in New Mexico in 1998, led by Doug Wolfe, an author on the paper.

"Suskityrannus has a much more slender skull and foot than its later and larger cousins, the Tyrannosaurus rex", Nesbitt told the university. "The find also links the older and smaller tyrannosauroids from North America and China with the much larger tyrannosaurids that lasted until the final extinction of non-avian dinosaurs", Nesbit adds.

Tyrannosaurus rex, like the kind wreaking havoc in "Jurassic Park", reigned as king of the dinosaurs between 66 million and 80 million years ago.

Researchers say that the Suskityrannus fills a gap in the dinosaur fossil record, with very few tyrannosauroids known to exist between the early Cretaceous and the late Cretaceous. The first skeleton was discovered in 1997 by Robert Denton, who's now a senior geologist with Terracon Consultants.

Two partial skeletons were found.

At the time, experts thought he might have found a dromaeosaur such as a Velociraptor.

However its relative, the big Tyrannosaurus Rex we all know, only evolved around 15 million years before the dinosaurs were wiped out. "I am now an assistant professor that gets to teach about Earth history". Then Nesbitt took them with him, as both a student and a researcher, to different institutions.

During that period, many dinosaurs evolved into supersized versions.

"It has been a long journey, but I think we have a good understanding of how Suskityrannus fits into the bigger picture of tyrannosauroid and, more broadly, dinosaur evolution", Nesbitt said.



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