New meat-eating dinosaur alters evolutionary 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. A live embargoed webcast with the scientists will be held in advance of publication for credentialed reporters on Dec. 9. See details below.
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. Herrerasaurus was found in a South American rock layer alongside the oldest members of two major lineages—the sauropods and the ornithischians.
"Tawa pulls Herrerasaurus into the theropod lineage, so that means all three lineages are present in South America pretty much as soon as dinosaurs evolved," said Nesbitt. "Without Tawa, you can guess at that, but Tawa helps shore up that argument."
Tawa skeletons were found beside two other theropod dinosaurs from around the same period. Nesbitt noted that each of the three is more closely related to a known dinosaur from South America than they are to each other. This suggests these three species each descended from a separate lineage in South America, rather than all evolving from a local ancestor, and then later dispersed to North America and other parts of the supercontinent Pangaea. It also suggests there were multiple dispersals out of South America.
The first Tawa fossils were discovered in 2004 by volunteers taking a week-long paleontology seminar with experts at the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology in Abiquiu, New Mexico. The dig site, known as Hayden Quarry, is in a hillside on Ghost Ranch made famous by the painter Georgia O'Keefe. Alex Downs, an instructor for the course, contacted Nesbitt and a colleague to ask if they'd like to take a look at the fossils. There was a thigh bone, part of a hip and what later turned out to be some unrelated vertebrae.
"When we saw them, our jaws dropped," said Nesbitt. "A lot of these theropods have really hollow bones, so when they get preserved, they get really crunched. But these were in almost perfect condition."
He was also surprised by how much material was preserved at this one site. He and his colleagues began a full-scale excavation in 2006. Every summer since then, they've continued to unearth new material. The fossil bone bed extends for tens of meters along the hillside, promising years of painstaking work and perhaps additional significant discoveries.
Source: University of Texas at Austin
- Dinosaurs might be older than previously thoughtWed, 3 Mar 2010, 14:01:00 EST
- Sands of Gobi Desert yield new species of nut-cracking dinosaurWed, 17 Jun 2009, 9:31:11 EDT
- New analyses of dinosaur growth may wipe out one-third of speciesFri, 30 Oct 2009, 14:31:34 EDT
- Research unearths new dinosaur species Thu, 28 Feb 2013, 21:36:27 EST
- EARTH: How dinosaurs aroseTue, 18 Jan 2011, 14:02:55 EST
Articles on the same topic
- Rare fossil forces rethinking of early dinosaur evolutionFri, 11 Dec 2009, 14:30:27 EST
- Fossils of meat-eating dino foundfrom Sciencenews.orgFri, 11 Dec 2009, 14:28:43 EST
- Dinosaur provides evolutionary insightfrom UPIFri, 11 Dec 2009, 13:56:21 EST
- Discovery of New Dinosaur Provides Insight to Early Evolutionfrom Newswise - ScinewsThu, 10 Dec 2009, 20:28:18 EST
- Early carnivorous dinosaur crossed continents, alters evolutionary treefrom Science DailyThu, 10 Dec 2009, 17:21:13 EST
- New fossils shed light on evolution of dinosaursfrom AP ScienceThu, 10 Dec 2009, 16:14:20 EST
- New Dino Species: Early Meat-Eaters Crossed Continentsfrom Newswise - ScinewsThu, 10 Dec 2009, 15:28:40 EST
- Discovery of early meat-eating dinosaur redraws family treefrom CBC: Technology & ScienceThu, 10 Dec 2009, 15:28:36 EST
- Tawa Hallae--New Theropod Dinosaur Alters Evolutionary Treefrom Scientific BloggingThu, 10 Dec 2009, 15:21:29 EST
- Early carnivorous dinosaurs crossed continentsfrom PhysorgThu, 10 Dec 2009, 15:07:11 EST
- Discovery reveals where dinosaurs originatedfrom MSNBC: ScienceThu, 10 Dec 2009, 15:00:48 EST
- New fossils shed light on evolution of dinosaursfrom NewsvineThu, 10 Dec 2009, 14:42:57 EST
- Geographic Origin of Dinosaurs Pinned Downfrom Live ScienceThu, 10 Dec 2009, 14:28:55 EST
- Observatory: Bones Show Early Divergence of Dinosaur Lineagefrom NY Times ScienceThu, 10 Dec 2009, 14:28:13 EST
- Clues to dinosaur origins found in fossilsfrom UPIThu, 10 Dec 2009, 14:14:45 EST
- Fossils shake dinosaur family treefrom PhysorgThu, 10 Dec 2009, 12:28:45 EST
- It's true - one of our dinosaurs really is missingfrom BBC News: Science & NatureTue, 8 Dec 2009, 13:49:21 EST
Latest Science NewsletterGet the latest and most popular science news articles of the week in your Inbox! It's free!
Learn more about
Check out our next project, Biology.Net
From other science news sites
Popular science news articles
- UC Davis engineers create on-wetting fabric drains sweat
- Not just blowing in the wind: Compressing air for renewable energy storage
- Amazon River exhales virtually all carbon taken up by rain forest
- 1 in 10 teens using 'study drugs,' but parents aren't paying attention
- Slow earthquakes: It's all in the rock mechanics
No popular news yet
No popular news yet
- Stem cell transplant restores memory, learning in mice
- 2 landmark studies report on success of using image-guided brachytherapy to treat cervical cancer
- Researchers discover mushrooms can provide as much vitamin D as supplements
- Cutting back on sleep harms blood vessel function and breathing control
- Study: Low-dose aspirin stymies proliferation of 2 breast cancer lines