Horse-sized tyrannosaur fossil may be the missing link to dinosaur evolution and my provide clues on how small T. rexs turned into giant predators.
Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the largest and most fearsome predators of all time that ruled the surface of the Earth about 70 to 80 million years ago. The top predator was about 40 feet long and weighed several tons. But how the T. rex evolved into giant carnivore has long been a mystery because of a vast gap in fossil records.
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Recently a horse-sized tyrannosaur fossil recovered in central Asia has been examined and researchers suspect that this fossil remain could provide important clues on T. rex dramatic transition from small species to giant, intelligent predator within a small time period.
The newly discovered species, named Timurlengia euotica, lived about 90 million years ago. It was almost the same time when tyrannosaurs started to get bigger and developed strong cognitive abilities and sharp senses.
The new species is tyrannosaurs but not the ancestors of T. rex, and it fills a 20 million year gap in the fossil record of tyrannosaurs.
“The ancestors of T. rex would have looked a whole lot like Timurlengia, a horse-sized hunter with a big brain and keen hearing that would put us to shame,” said lead researcher Steve Brusatte from University of Edinburgh. “Only after these ancestral tyrannosaurs evolved their clever brains and sharp senses did they grow into the colossal sizes of T. rex. Tyrannosaurs had to get smart before they got big.”
A team of researchers discovered the fossil remains from Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan during an expedition between 1997 and 2006.
“Central Asia was the place where many of the familiar groups of Cretaceous dinosaurs had their roots,” said co-researcher Hans Sues. “The discoveries from the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan are now helping us to trace the early history of these animals, many of which later flourished in our own backyard in North America.”
To get more insight into the evolution of giant T. rex, researchers reconstructed the brain of newly discovered Timurlengia using CT scans. Researchers found that the skull was basically the same as the T. rex, same shape and proportions but was smaller than that of T. rex. However, its brain and sense was already highly developed. The dinosaur species, weighing up to 600 pounds, was a fast runner and clever predator of its time.
“Timurlengia was a nimble pursuit hunter with slender, blade like teeth suitable for slicing through meat,” said Sues. “It probably prayed on the various large plant eaters, especially early duck-billed dinosaurs, which shared its world. Clues from the life of Timurlengia allow us to fill in gaps and better understand the life and evolution of other related dinosaurs, like T. rex.”
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The early tyrannosaurs existed around 170 million years ago during the Jurassic Period and they were slightly larger than humans. By the Late Cretaceous Period, they had evolved into giant predators like T. rex, indicating the transition and growth in size occurred suddenly towards the end of the group’s long evolutionary history.