A newly discovered species of dinosaur, believed to be a smaller cousin of the popular Velociraptor, was actually discovered by accident.
In 1999, Dr. Robert Sullivan, a paleoherpetologist — the study of fossil amphibians and reptiles — discovered a partial skull in New Mexico of what he originally thought belonged to the species Saurornitholestes langstoni. Recently, however, Steven Jasinski, acting curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, discovered that the partial skull wasn’t that of S. langstoni at all. It actually belonged to an entirely new species of dinosaur, dubbed Saurornitholestes sullivani, which means “lizard bird thief.”.
Quite by accident, Jasinski didn’t set out to discover the new species. He was going through a cache of raptor specimens when he realized that the one belonging to the newly-discovered dinosaur species didn’t quite match the rest.
“I wasn’t directly trying to [discover a new species],” Jasinski told Philadelphia Magazine, “[but further analysis] revealed that some things didn’t belong to the other.”
What made the new species’ skull stand out from the rest was that the area of the skull reserved for the olfactory bulb — the part of the brain that helps determine and interpret smells — was larger in the new dinosaur than in the others.
“This feature means that Saurornitholestes sullivani had a relatively better sense of smell than other dromaeosaurid dinosaurs, including Velociraptor, Dromaeosaurus, and Bambiraptor,” Jasinski says, “This keen olfaction may have made S. sullivani an intimidating predator as well. We already knew that some of them were good predators — some of them were even better than we thought.”
Unlike many of its raptor cousins, Saurornitholestes sullivani was pretty diminutive, coming in at only three feet at the hip and six feet in length. But Jasinski says that it’s small stature didn’t make it any less formidable a foe. S. sullivani would have been fast and agile, and it likely hunted in packs like other dinosaurs in the Dromaeosauridae family. Add in the keener sense of smell than other dinosaurs, and you’ve got one brutal little dinosaur.
“Although it was not large, this was not a dinosaur you would want to mess with.”
S. Sullivani would have lived during the Late Cretaceous period — about 75 million years ago — that culminated with the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction 66 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs. The newly-discovered dinosaur species lived at a time when North America was two separate continents, divided by an inland sea. S. Sullivani would have lived on the western shores in an area known as Laramidia.