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11/07/2014

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Death match dinosaurs frozen in time help solve T. rex identity crisis

By Katie Griffiths, Young People’s Programme Assistant, British Science Association

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The discovery of an exciting new dinosaur fossil has helped to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the Late Cretaceous era, the existence of Nanotyrannus lancensis. Until now, Nanotyrannus has been suffering an identity crisis: previous fossils and relics have given hints to its existence, but there’s been no clear evidence that this is a distinct species, rather than simply a developmental growth stage of that great and well-known Cretaceous predator, the Tyrannosaurus rex.   

Now, however, new evidence has come to light, in the form of two duelling dinosaurs, predator and prey, locked in immortal combat. The two fossils, consisting of a triceratops and its predator, were discovered in Montana, USA and have been preserved in what appears to be a battle for their lives. However, what is so important about this discovery is not simply the battle taking place, nor even the fact that these are incredibly complete and well-preserved fossil specimens. One of the most exciting things about this discovery is the predator fossil specimen itself.

Dr Phillip Manning, Reader in Palaeobiology at the University of Manchester and Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History described the specimen as “possibly the most amazing fossil in the world”. He went on to explain to the British Science Festival that palaeontologists studying the fossil have identified some “key skeletal characteristics that nail this dinosaur’s identity” as a distinct species of dinosaur, Nanotyrannus lancensis. This is an exciting discovery, up until now the existence of this species has been the subject of much uncertainty and debate.

The crucial features that have helped to identify the specimen include a rather large pair of arms. One of the most distinctive feature of a T. rex has always been its almost comically tiny arms, however the arms of this fossil are much bulkier, longer and altogether larger. The fossil also features a longer neck, with a Swan-like curve. These characteristics demonstrate that this fossil is not a baby T. rex, but instead a Nanotyrannus, a distinct species that Dr Manning suggests would have “filled an intermediate ecological niche between the vast T. rex and the contemporary dromeosaur predators.”

This discovery is hugely important for our understanding of the Late Cretaceous period. In previous models of the time, the ecosystem was very stable and straightforward, with a single large dominating predator at the top of the food-chain. The existence of a smaller predator has the effect of balancing the ecosystem, and this discovery furthers our understanding of one of the most fascinating periods of time, the period leading up to the last major extinction event of our planet.

The Nanotyrannus fossil will go up for auction in New York in the coming months, and Dr Manning, along with much of the scientific community, are hoping that it will end up somewhere that it can continue to be studied, so that we can continue to learn more about the evolution of life on Earth.

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