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A scientific gold mine: Alberta fossil sheds new light on how raptors evolved

‘A scientific gold mine’: Alberta fossil sheds new light on how raptors evolved

An «exquisitely preserved» fossil of a small feathered dinosaur discovered in an Alberta provincial park is providing new information on how theropod dinosaurs evolved around the world.

The 76-million-year-old species, known as Saurornitholestes langstoni, was long thought to be closely related to Velociraptor from Mongolia that some researchers called Velociraptor langstoni.

The new research is from University of Alberta paleontologists Philip Currie and Clive Coy, working with fellow paleontologist David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Coy discovered the skeleton in Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park in 2014.

It is «remarkably complete and exquisitely preserved,» with all the bones — except for the tail — preserved in life position, the U of A said in a news release Friday.

«This ranks in the top discoveries of my career,» Currie said. «It is pretty amazing.»

The discovery shows how Saurornitholestes is different from Velociraptor.

It also identifies a unique tooth evolved for preening feathers and provides new evidence that the dromaeosaurid lineage from North America, which includes Saurornitholestes, is distinct from an Asian lineage that includes the famous Velociraptor, the news release said.

«Paleontology in general is a gigantic puzzle where most of the pieces are missing,» Currie said. «The discovery and description of this specimen represents the recovery of many pieces of the puzzle.»

‘Most complete and best-preserved’ skeleton

Saurornitholestes is a small feathered carnivorous dinosaur within the dromaeosaurid family that was previously known from fragmentary remains.

«Because of their small size and delicate bones, small meat-eating dinosaur skeletons are exceptionally rare in the fossil record,» Evans said.

«The new skeleton is by far the most complete and best-preserved raptor skeleton ever found in North American. It’s a scientific gold mine.»

The new research, which focuses on the dinosaur’s skull, shows that the North American form has a shorter and deeper skull than Velociraptor. At the front of the mouth, the researchers discovered a flat tooth with long ridges, which was likely used for preening feathers.

The same tooth has been identified in Velociraptor and other dromaeosaurids.

The work also establishes a distinction between dromaeosaurids in North America and Asia.

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«This changes our understanding of intercontinental movements of these animals and ultimately will help us understand their evolution, Currie said.

Future research will investigate the remainder of the skeleton and include analysis on the relationships between dromaeosaurids.

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Dineobellator’s remains were unearthed in the San Juan Basin, New Mexico — a well known dinosaur graveyard. They included parts of the skull as well as the ribs, spine and leg and wing bones

‘These dinosaurs couldn’t fly, but were still covered in feathers, which they probably used for sexual or species selection, or for things like camouflage,’ said Jasinksi.

‘Unlike other known dromaeosaurids, however, Dineobellator had a tail that was highly mobile near its base close to the hips.

‘Think of when a cheetah is chasing a gazelle. As the gazelle changes direction, the cheetah’s tail whips around, balancing out the cheetah as it changes direction to maintain the pursuit.

‘This is similar to what Dineobellator could have done, especially as it chased other dinosaurs and animals, making it especially agile and a very adept pursuit predator.

‘We believe Dineobellator probably hunted more of the open habitat in this environment, while the bigger tyrannosaurids would have stayed closer to the forest edge, where they could do more ambushing and less open area pursuit.’

It lived alongside the southern cousin of T Rex — the tyrannosaurid — which would eat it if it could catch it, said Dr Jasinski.

‘It probably did not do it often, or really almost ever. Unless one was injured or dying, a tyrannosaurid probably could never have caught one,’ he said.

‘They would have come in contact and interacted, although its more likely it would be a situation where Dineobellator took down a kill, and the southern tyrannosaur would have scared it off and taken the kill instead.

Photo from the original discovery of Dineobellator notohesperus pointing out the hand claw among other bone fragments. It was found by palaeontologists at the State Museum of Pennsylvania and has been named Dineobellator after the indigenous people of New Mexico where it was found

Dineobellator notohesperus outline and skeletal reconstruction. Dineobellator also had razor sharp teeth and unusually strong forelimbs and legs allowing it to rip its prey to bits, according to study author Steven Jasinski

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‘Dineobellator would have been a very good hunter. Speed and agility, combined with large claws and small but serrated teeth would make for a deadly animal.

‘Single individuals would easily be able to hunt, take down, and kill animals its size and small, so roughly human-sized.’

Combining fast speed with increased agility and strong arms, hands, and feet would also allow these dinosaurs to hunt much larger animals and take down those several times there size, the team predict.

‘While they probably wouldn’t have gone after animals with impressive defences like the horns of ceratopsids or the body armor of ankylosaurs, they certainly could have gone after large animals like hadrosaurids,’ said Jasinski.

They may have also gone after the duck-billed dinosaurs, whose main defence would be staying in large herds.

Dineobellator fills in important missing information for the evolution of dromaeosaurids and dinosaurs just before the extinction event, he said.

‘They are cousins to birds, evolving alongside them and taking on many similar characteristics, while also going in a different direction.

Photo of lead author Steven Jasinski conducting field work. One of its claws bore a scar from a fight with one of its kin — probably over food or a mate — it also suffered a rib injury in the attack, which had healed

‘Dineobellator helps show us these dinosaurs were still trying out new things, still evolving and changing, even to the bitter end of their time.’

It’s full scientific name is Dineobellator notohesperus — which translates as ‘Navajo warrior from the Southwest.’

‘It is feared that we are currently acting as a large scale extinction event to animals and plants today,’ Jasinski warns.

He said humans are causing large-scale extinctions for animals that were doing well before we started changing things.

‘Understanding what happened in the past may help us better prepare for the future, or give us clues as to what we should do to try to change things for the better now.’

Following the discovery, Mr Jasinski said he plans to continue field research in New Mexico — with the hope of finding more fossils.

‘It was with a lot of searching and a bit of luck that this dinosaur was found weathering out of a small hillside,’ he said.

‘We do so much hiking and it is easy to overlook something or simply walk on the wrong side of a hill and miss something.

‘We hope that the more we search, the better chance we have of finding more of Dineobellator or the other dinosaurs it lived alongside.’

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The research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

WHAT IS BIODIVERSITY?

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth.

It encompasses diversity the number of species of plants and animals, the genetic diversity within and between these species and the different biomes and ecosystems of which they are part of.

These ecosystems can include the rainforest, tundra and desert

Biodiversity also includes the diversity within microscopic organisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi.

How does biodiversity affect us?

Biodiversity provides us with food directly or through pollination, medical discoveries and ecosystem services.

The latter include everything from cleaning water and absorbing chemicals, which wetlands do, to providing oxygen for us to breathe.

Threats to biodiversity

The Earth’s biodiversity is in decline due to activities such as deforestation, land-use change, agricultural intensification, over-consumption of natural resources, pollution and climate change.

Some scientists believe that there is enough evidence to confirm that we are in the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event.

This is where there is a widespread loss of 75% of species over a relatively short geological time period of two million years.

There have been five mass extinctions so far, perhaps the most well-known one is the loss of the dinosaurs caused by the asteroid

But this current mass extinction is different, because it is caused by humans.

‘Most complete and best-preserved’ skeleton

Saurornitholestes is a small feathered carnivorous dinosaur within the dromaeosaurid family that was previously known from fragmentary remains.

«Because of their small size and delicate bones, small meat-eating dinosaur skeletons are exceptionally rare in the fossil record,» Evans said.

«The new skeleton is by far the most complete and best-preserved raptor skeleton ever found in North American. It’s a scientific gold mine.»

The new research, which focuses on the dinosaur’s skull, shows that the North American form has a shorter and deeper skull than Velociraptor. At the front of the mouth, the researchers discovered a flat tooth with long ridges, which was likely used for preening feathers.

The same tooth has been identified in Velociraptor and other dromaeosaurids.

The work also establishes a distinction between dromaeosaurids in North America and Asia.

«This changes our understanding of intercontinental movements of these animals and ultimately will help us understand their evolution, Currie said.

Future research will investigate the remainder of the skeleton and include analysis on the relationships between dromaeosaurids.

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