Missing Middle? Fossils of Crocodile-like Ancestors to Dinosaurs Found

Reptile fossils hint at wide diversity of dinosaur ancestors

Fossils of a four-legged, meat-eating reptile are helping paint a more complicated picture of the ancestry of dinosaurs than scientists had understood.

"The research sheds light on the distribution and diversity of the ancestors of crocodiles‚ birds‚ and dinosaurs‚" said Judy Skog‚ a programme director in the foundation's earth sciences division.

Teleocrater, living more than 245 million years ago during the Triassic Period, pre-dated dinosaurs, were widespread during the Triassic Period and lived in modern day Russia, India, and Brazil. The carnivorous creature, which is not a direct ancestor to dinosaurs but more of a close cousin, is called Teleocrater rhadinus. They estimate Teleocrater was 6 to 10 feet long, with a long neck and longer tail, and weighed 20 to 65 pounds.

"We demonstrate that several anatomical features long thought to characterize Dinosauria and dinosauriforms evolved much earlier, soon after the bird-crocodylian split, and that the earliest avemetatarsalians retained the crocodylian-like ankle morphology and hindlimb proportions of stem archosaurs and early pseudosuchians", according to the report. The newfound Teleocrater (in red) is the earliest known relative on the bird side of the family tree.

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During an excavation in a basin in southern Tanzania, Africa, paleontologists unearthed the fossil of one of the oldest relatives of the dinosaur.

Teleocrater is the earliest-found member of the bird branch, but was found to have ankles more like crocodiles than dinosaurs and birds, meaning it would have had a lower, more reptilian gait.

A statement issued by Birmingham University about the study said it filled a "critical gap in the fossil record of dinosaur cousins".

"Even though we had been predicting that some kind of animal should occupy this part of the phylogenetic tree, until you find it you don't know what all of its features will look like", said lead study researcher Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech. For decades, our knowledge of close dinosaur relatives has been based largely on animals like the Triassic Period reptile Marasuchus, a tiny, squirrel-sized critter that moved rapidly on two legs.

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"Surprisingly, early dinosaur relatives were pretty profoundly not dinosaur-like", Angielczyk said. Charig could not determine whether the creature was more closely related to crocodilians or to dinosaurs, as they lacked ankles and other bones. Fossil records show that they existed after a large group of reptiles called archosaurs, which was classified as two groups-a bird and a crocodile branch. The first specimen of Teleocrater was collected by Cambridge palaeontologist Francis Rex Parrington in the 1930s.

A simplified depiction of phylogenetic relationships within Archosauria, including Teleocrater rhadinus. The findings were published April 12 in the journal Nature, and it was conducted by a group of paleontologists and scientists from around the world.

Teleocrater's remains were found in the same Tanzanian region as fossils of the two-legged meat-eater Nyasasaurus, which lived perhaps a couple of million years later.

Scientists previously thought that the early relatives of the dinosaurs were small and "very-dinosaur-like" with their features evolving rapidly after breaking away from the crocodile-like side.

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