Scientists from Cambridge, London and Melbourne have found the first ever evidence that tyrannosaur dinosaurs existed in the southern continents. They identified a hip bone found at Dinosaur Cove in Victoria, Australia as belonging to an ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex.
The find sheds new light on the evolutionary history of this group of dinosaurs. It also raises the crucial question of why it was only in the north that tyrannosaurs evolved into the giant predators like T. rex.
The 30cm-long pubis bone from Dinosaur Cove looks like a rod with two expanded ends, one of which is flattened and connects to the hip and the other looks like a 'boot'.
According to Dr Roger Benson of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, who identified the find: "The bone is unambiguously identifiable as a tyrannosaur because these dinosaurs have very distinctive hip bones."
The discovery lays to rest the belief held by some scientists that tyrannosaurs never made it to the southern continents.
"This is an exciting discovery because tyrannosaur fossils had only ever been found in the northern hemisphere before and some scientists thought tyrannosaurs never made it down south.
"Although we only have one bone, it shows that 110 million years ago small tyrannosaurs like ours might have been found worldwide. This find has major significance for our knowledge of how this group of dinosaurs evolved." says Dr Benson.
Dr Paul Barrett, Palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, London and member of the research team commented: "The absence of tyrannosauroids from the southern continents was becoming more and more anomalous as representatives of other 'northern' dinosaur groups started to show up in the south. This find shows that tyrannosauroids were able to reach these areas early in their evolutionary history and also hints at the possibility that others remain to be discovered in Africa, South America and India."
The bone would have come from an animal about three metres long and weighing around 80 kg, similar to a human, and would have had the large head and small arms that make tyrannosaurs so distinctive.
The newly identified dinosaur, known as NMV P186069, was much smaller than T. rex, which was 12 metres long and weighed around four tonnes. Giant size like this only evolved late in the tyrannosaur lineage.
Compared with T. rex, which lived about 70 million years ago at the end of Cretaceous period, NMV P186069 lived earlier during the Cretaceous, around 110 million years ago.
During the time of the dinosaurs the continents gradually went from a single supercontinent towards something like their present-day arrangement. This tyrannosaur is from the mid-stages of this continental break-up, when the southern continents of South America, Antarctica, Africa and Australia had separated from the northern continents, but had not separated from each other.
While answering the question of whether or not tyrannosaurs lived in both the southern and northern hemispheres, the new find leaves another, deeper mystery: why did tyrannosaurs evolve into giant predators such as T. rex only in the northern hemisphere?
According to Dr Benson: "It is difficult to explain why different groups succeeded in the north and the south if they originally existed in both places. What we need to know now is just how diverse the early radiation of tyrannosaurs was, why they went extinct, leaving only giant-sized, short-armed species like T. rex, and how successful they might have been in the southern hemisphere. We can only answer these questions with new discoveries."
The paper is published today in Science.
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Notes to editors:
Roger B. J. Benson et al, 'A Southern Tyrant Reptile' is published in Science on 25 March 2010.
About the excavation: Dinosaur Cove is in south-east Australia, where the Otway ranges meet the sea to the west of Cape Otway, along the Great Ocean road. The fossil-bearing rock layers consist of sand-, silt- and mudstones around 106 million years old.
The site was excavated during the 1980s and 1990s. Work at the site was challenging: access involved either climbing down dangerous cliffs or landing a boat or helicopter on rock platforms at low tide, and the hardness of the rock meant heavy mining equipment and dynamite was required to uncover the fossil-bearing rock layers. Swedish mining company Atlas Copco donated some of the equipment used and the excavation was funded by the National Geographic Society.