A new study on dinosaur origin from the United Kingdom suggests that Tyrannosaurus Rex and a few other popular species may be, in figurative terms, “on the move.” That’s because the study challenges what scientists have, for the past 130 or so years, known about the dinosaur family tree.
According to the Associated Press, a team of scientists led by University of Cambridge ph.D student Matthew Baron made a surprising discovery after analyzing several dinosaur species, one that might require moving theropods to another branch of the broader dinosaur family tree. That may also point to the animals having originated further north than once believed.
A separate report from the Atlantic suggested that study lead author Matthew Baron and his colleagues may have “radically redrawn” dinosaur origin theories as we know it. Since it was first proposed in 1887 by Harry Seeley, Tyrannosaurus Rex and other meat-eating theropods, as well as long-necked plant eaters such as Brontosaurus, were filed under the saurischian category, while horned and/or armored species like Triceratops and Stegosaurus were filed under the ornithischian category. The former category was defined as a lizard-hipped group, while the latter was defined as a bird-hipped group.
Baron’s new dinosaur origin story suggests that the U.K. scientists may be on to something. The Atlantic wrote about how the researchers made “radical” changes to both branches after comparing over 70 dinosaur species and their relatives. The researchers placed the theropods together with the ornithischians and isolated the sauropods in the saurischian group.
In his own unique way, the Atlantic’s Ed Yong offered some modern-day context to the new dinosaur origin theory.
“This is like someone telling you that neither cats nor dogs are what you thought they were, and some of the animals you call ‘cats’ are actually dogs.”
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) March 22, 2017
Talking about the origin of dinosaurs, Baron believes that the animals first emerged about ten million years earlier than what was theorized in 1887, having arrived about 247 million years ago. The first dinosaur, he noted, may have been Nyasasaurus, which measured about six to ten feet tall in height and was a plant-eater that lived in what is now known as Tanzania.
The AP report also stated that Baron discovered an animal similar to a dinosaur, but not exactly one. This “reptilian ancestor” was found in Scotland, and that points to dinosaurs originating in the U.K., which goes against theories that the animals first evolved out of the Southern Hemisphere.
Macalester College paleontologist Kristy Curry Rogers, who was not involved in the study, was impressed by the new research, highlighting its game-changing implications in an email to the Associated Press.
“If the authors are correct, this really turns our longstanding understanding of dinosaur evolution upside down!”
Rogers added that while the study does beg some new questions on the dinosaur family tree, it does suggest that animals that were once believed to be related might not be very closely related after all.
On the contrary, some scientists have expressed their doubts on the dinosaur origin study. The UK researchers, said University of Chicago dinosaur specialist Paul Sereno, presented some “weak” evidence while leaving some pressing questions unanswered.
Although many people aren’t quite sure what to make of his research, Baron told the Atlantic that other researchers may still be sticking too closely with Seeley’s 130-year-old theory, despite the lack of corroborating evidence to back it up.
“When you look at specimens, it’s very quick and easy to say: that’s a saurischian, that’s an ornithischian, and never the two shall meet. People then go into their studies with that mindset, and Seeley’s idea has never been rigorously tested.”
— CBS News (@CBSNews) March 21, 2017
If Baron’s new study on dinosaur origin is accurate, it means, in simpler terms, that Tyrannosaurus may have closer familial ties to bird-hipped Triceratops than it does to lizard-hipped Brontosaurus, and not the other way around. It also means that Tyrannosaurus Rex and its “ornithoscelidan” relatives, as Baron called them, don’t have any key defining feature, but rather a “hodgepodge of at least 21 hard-to-define features” – the first dinosaurs of this kind may have likely been small and quick with large hand, and an unusually diverse diet of plants and meat.
Given his thoughts on the so-called ornithoscelidans, Baron believes that dinosaur origin began in the U.K., with dinosaurs starting out as “generalist” omnivores, and meat-eating theropods and the “obscure” herrerasaurids separately evolving into carnivorous animals, much like we know Tyrannosaurus Rex and its ilk.
[Featured Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]