For decades, scientists have wondered what the earliest dinosaur relatives looked like. Most assumed that they would look like miniature dinosaurs, be about the size of a chicken, and walk on two legs.
A Virginia Tech paleobiologist's latest discovery of Teleocrater rhadinus, however, has overturned popular predictions. This carnivorous creature, unearthed in southern Tanzania, was approximately seven to 10 feet long, with a long neck and tail, and instead of walking on two legs, it walked on four crocodylian-like legs.
The finding, published in the journal Nature April 12, fills a critical gap in the fossil record. Teleocrater, living more than 245 million years ago during the Triassic Period, pre-dated dinosaurs. It shows up in the fossil record right after a large group of reptiles known as archosaurs split into a bird branch (leading to dinosaurs and eventually birds) and a crocodile branch (eventually leading to today's alligators and crocodiles). Teleocrater and its kin are the earliest known members of the bird branch of the archosaurs.
"The discovery of such an important new species is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geosciences in the College of Science.
He and Michelle Stocker, a co-author and also an assistant professor of geosciences in the College of Science, will give a free public talk with the fossils at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13, 2017 at the Virginia Tech Museum of Geosciences on the second floor of Derring Hall.
Teleocrater fossils were first discovered in Tanzania in 1933 by paleontologist F. Rex Parrington, and the specimens were first studied by Alan J. Charig, former Curator of Fossil Reptiles, Amphibians and Birds at the Natural History Museum of London, in the 1950s.
Largely because the first specimen lacked crucial bones, such as the ankle bones, Charig could not determine whether Teleocrater was more closely related to crocodylians or to dinosaurs. Unfortunately, he died before he was able to complete his studies. The new specimens of Teleocrater, found in 2015, clear those questions up. The intact ankle bones and other parts of the skeleton helped scientists determine that the species is one of the oldest members of the archosaur tree and had a crocodylian look.
Nesbitt and co-authors chose to honor Charig's original work by using the name he picked out for the animal, Teleocrater rhadinus, which means "slender complete basin" and refers to the animal's lean build and closed hip socket.
"The discovery of Teleocrater fundamentally changes our ideas about the earliest history of dinosaur relatives," said Nesbitt. "It also raises far more questions than it answers."
"This research sheds light on the distribution and diversity of the ancestors of crocodiles, birds, and dinosaurs," says Judy Skog, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, "and indicates that dinosaur origins should be re-examined now that we know more about the complex history and traits of these early ancestors."
Teleocrater and other recently discovered dinosaur cousins show that these animals were widespread during the Triassic Period and lived in modern day Russia, India, and Brazil. Furthermore, these cousins existed and went extinct before dinosaurs even appeared in the fossil record.
The team's next steps are to go back to southern Tanzania this May to find more remains and missing parts of the Teleocrater skeleton. They will also continue to clean the bones of Teleocrater and other animals from the dig site in the paleontology preparation lab in Derring Hall.
"It's so exciting to solve puzzles like Teleocrater, where we can finally tease apart some of these tricky mixed assemblages of fossils and shed some light on broader anatomical and biogeographic trends in an iconic group of animals," said Stocker.
Stocker and Nesbitt are both researchers with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. Other co-authors on the paper include: Richard J. Butler with the University of Birmingham; Martin D. Ezcurra with Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales; Paul M. Barrett with the Natural History Museum of London; Kenneth D. Angielczyk with the Field Museum of Natural History; Roger M. H. Smith with the University of the Witwatersrand and Iziko South African Museum; Christian A. Sidor with the University of Washington; Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki with Uppsala University; Andrey G. Sennikov with Borissiak Paleontological Institute and Kazan Federal Univeristy; and Charig.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant, a National Geographic Society for Young Explorers grant, and the Russian Government Program of Competitive Growth of Kazan Federal University.
More information is available through the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech website.