Published: Fri, April 14, 2017
Research | By Chelsea Rogers

Apparently early dinosaurs looked like crocodiles

Apparently early dinosaurs looked like crocodiles

This time, he and his colleagues had enough material to figure out how teleocrater fits into the evolutionary family tree.

The finding, published in journal Nature, fills a gap in the fossil record. It may also cause scientists to reevaluate which ancient archosaurs they study to try to understand what a dinosaur ancestor might have looked like. The freaky newfound species is forcing paleontologists to rethink how dinosaurs evolved.

A Virginia Tech paleobiologist's latest discovery of Teleocrater rhadinus, however, has overturned popular predictions.

With reverberations from a proposed massive rewrite of the dinosaur family tree still echoing, here comes a species new to science but very old in the archosaur lineage. The discovery may also shed light on what dinosaur's relative looked like.

Earlier this year dinosaur footprints preserved in 140m-year-old Australian rocks were described by palaeontologists as the country's equivalent to Jurassic Park. Somewhere along the line, the ancestor of dinosaurs diverged from the ancestor of crocodiles, a momentous split in the evolution of vertebrates that ultimately set the stage for the age of dinos.

Scientists from institutions including the the University of Birmingham and the Fields Museum in Chicago discovered that the creature, an early "cousin" of dinosaurs, was much less dinosaur-like than they were expecting.

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"However, Teleocrater shows us that bird-line archosaurs initially inherited many crocodile-like features from the common ancestor of all archosaurs, and that the "typical" bird-line features evolved in a step-wise fashion over a longer period of time", said Angielczyk.

The findings were published this week in Nature, an worldwide scientific journal, and they concern the Teleocrater, the earliest-known dinosaur relative.

The Triassic Period lasted from 252-201 million years ago, and the following animals arose during this time: dinosaurs, crocodile relatives, mammals, pterosaurs, turtles, frogs, and lizards.

One of them includes dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and eventually birds. Birds, the dinosaur descendants, are still alive. Consequently, scientists who studied the fossils could not tell whether the Teleocrater was related to crocs or dinosaurs.

"It's nearly a one-two punch", Nesbitt said of the two new studies. The specimen has some features we thought were unique to later dinosaurs (and not to pterosaurs), subtle things like the shape of the hip socket and features on the vertebrae. The first remains of the species were discovered in the 1930s. That's why paleontologists are excited about the new species. The event was so catastrophic that paleontologists refer to it simply as "the Great Dying", and scientists are interested in how life recovered in its wake. Its legs were shorter than a dinosaur's, but not as sprawling as those of a crocodile. Archosaur illustrations with a bit of panache, like this depiction of Teleocrater making short work of a cynodont, one of our distant ancestors. The first description of the animal, published today, reveals the conventional chronology of how dinosaurs bodies evolved might be just a wee bit off, give or take several million years. Most of these species have been enigmatic and hard to understand, but our work suggests that together they form a previously unrecognised group of dinosaur cousins.

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