Fossils hint at wide variety of dinosaur ancestors

Teleocrater

Teleocrater

Teleocrater fossils were first discovered in 1933, and studied at the Natural History Museum in London in the 1950s.

The beast was 7 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) long, smaller than crocodiles.

FOSSILS that lay unexamined at the Natural History Museum for around 60 years have helped identify a "missing link" that forces scientists to rethink the early evolution of dinosaurs.

Teleocrater lived during the Triassic Period, millions of years before the first dinosaurs.

The species dates to about 245 million years ago, from the Triassic epoch.

Nesbitt and his colleagues plan to return to Tanzania in May to try to fill in more gaps in left in their partial skeletons, and more gaps in our understanding of these long-gone species. These were miniature, carnivores that walked on two legs. But their necks and tails were unusually long, and the bones bore certain markings only found in dinosaurs.

"People have concentrated on dinosaurs for a really long time; they were really successful for nearly 180 million years and they continue on as successful birds today", Nesbitt said.

Now, standing amid swaying grasses and piles of upturned soil at a fossil site not far from where the original bones were discovered, gazing at the remains of three new specimens, Nesbitt knew he was looking at the same creature. Most assumed that they would look like dwarf dinosaurs and walk on two legs.

Stretching between six and 10 feet (1.8 and 3 m) long, the Teleocrater not only exhibits features later seen developed in dinosaurs, but also shares much in common with its distant crocodilian relatives.

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Dr Kevin Padian, an integrative biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who reviewed the paper, said the findings showed that the features that have traditionally been associated with the bird-dinosaur line did not evolve in lockstep. Charig was one of Parrington's students, and included an analysis of the fossils and the name Teleocrater in his PhD thesis in the '50s.

This artist's rendering provided by Gabriel Lio in April 2017 shows the Teleocrater rhadinus, a four-legged, meat-eating reptile and a close relative of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and pterosaurs all have a version of a hinged, birdlike ankle, rather than the crocodilelike ankle with ball-and-socket joint. Reconstruction of the skeleton of Teleocrater rhadinus Scale = 25 cm.

He said: "'It's astonishing to think that it's taken more than 80 years for the true scientific importance of these fossils to be understood and published". Charig died with the puzzle still missing the needed pieces.

As The Field Museum's associate curator of fossil mammals and paper author Ken Angielczyk explained: "Teleocrater has unexpectedly crocodile-like features".

"The discovery overturns widely-held preconceptions by palaeontologists about the morphology of early dinosaur relatives, with many scientists anticipating that such creatures would be smaller, bipedal and more 'dinosaur-like".

The new specimens were uncovered in the East African country in 2015, resolving some of those outstanding questions.

All the specimens used to describe Teleocrater were collected from a rock unit called the Manda Beds, in the Ruhuhu Basin of southern Tanzania, Africa.

However, the samples lacked crucial bones like those in the ankle, meaning he could not tell which branch of the evolving reptiles Teleocrater belonged to.

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