Two amateur fossil hunters were very lucky to find the scattered bones of a new dinosaur — now named Dracoraptor — back in 2014, so lucky in fact the find should be nearly impossible.
Firstly, the Dracoraptor, a T-Rex relative, is a new dinosaur. Secondly, it’s the oldest one ever found in the United Kingdom. And thirdly, the Dracoraptor sheds light on a period in dino-history that paleontologists know little about.
“It’s pretty rare to discover a completely new dinosaur species – in fact this is only the fourth one to be discovered in the UK since 1980, so it’s very special,” John Nudds of the University of Manchester told the Telegraph. “The fact that it comes from so early in the Jurassic Period, when theropod dinosaurs were evolving rapidly, makes it even more valuable to science, and will hopefully tell us a lot about dinosaur evolution at this time.”
Fossil hunters Nick and Rob Hanigan were on a Welsh beach near a golf club, searching for the fossils of ancient marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs when they came upon a rock fall that had tumbled off a cliff face and onto the shore, the Guardian reported.
Poking out among the rocks were bones, so the Hanigans called the local museum. Experts rushed to the site and found even more bones, encased in sedimentary rock about 200 million years old — or dating to the dawn of the Jurassic period. At this time, dinosaurs were just starting to diversify into the countless species found today.
The experts examined the bones closely and figured out that the Hanigans had found an entirely new species. The brothers picked the name Dracoraptor in honor of the national symbol of Wales — the dragon (draco means dragon), USA Today added. Officially, the dino’s name is Dracoraptor hanigani, to credit its discovers, a name that loosely translates to “dragon robber.”
The “small, slim and agile” Dracoraptor was a juvenile when it died, so its bones not yet fully formed. All told, bones from all over the Dracoraptor’s body were uncovered, from the snout, neck, arm, hand, pelvis, leg, foot, and tail. It was about the size of a leopard or cheetah, and had sharp front teeth accompanied by back teeth serrated like steak knives.
“What we have is an inquisitive, nippy little animal the size of a German shepherd dog,” said palaeontologist Steven Vidovic of the Dracoraptor, which was definitely a meat eater that pinched bits of meat off its prey. These eating habits also inspired the Dracoraptor’s name.
Experts believe that the young Dracoraptor died on an island nearby, washed into the sea, and sank to the bottom. Enter ancient sea urchins, which picked over the carcass, and tens of millions of years, which buried the bones in sediment. This sediment now forms the cliff face at Lavernock Point, where the Dracoraptor came to rest and then tumbled onto the shore across five slabs of rock.
Because this cliff face was made out of ocean sediments, the chances of anyone ever finding the remains of this Dracoraptor were extremely slim. Even better, the Dracoraptor is also 40 percent complete, making it one of the most complete in the entire world.
And better yet, the Dracoraptor may illuminate a mysterious period in history. At the end of the Triassic, a million years before the Dracoraptor came on the scene, a lot of larger land animals went extinct and in the vacuum their absence created, other dinosaurs flourished and grew, Vidovic explained.
“But the fossil record is poor for this period, we mostly have only scraps of bone from the early Jurassic. This fossil fills in a gap in our knowledge,” he said.
Enter the youthful Dracoraptor, the snippy, dog-sized, slim “dragon robber.” And in case he has some buddies waiting to be found in the ocean sediments nearby, Vidovic begs that other fossil hunters do what Nick and Rob did and call the experts.
“We don’t want half of this one ending up on someone’s mantelpiece.”
[Photo via YouTube]