Mar 15, 2016 | By Tess

While much is known about the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex in popular knowledge, such as its mammoth size, its dominant predatory capabilities, and its ability to scare the pants off of movie audiences, scientists have continued to puzzle over how the long-extinct species became such a dominant hunter during the late Cretaceous Period, around 70 million years ago. Now, however, scientists may have more insight into the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s evolution, thanks to a recent and significant paleontological find.

For years, paleontologists and researchers have known that the tyrannosaur family of dinosaurs, of which the T. Rex was a part, evolved from small, dog-sized predators into the massive creatures we are more familiar with. This evolution occurred over the course of 70 million years,  and many questions remained as to how the giant dinosaur got to where it did. Deep in the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan, newly discovered fossils of a previously unknown horse-sized dinosaur could offer some important clues, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Hans Sues

The newly discovered fossils, from a dinosaur called the Timurlengia euotica that lived about 90 million years ago, reveal some particularly important pieces of information about the T. Rex. Firstly, that the dinosaur’s transition from an average-sized biter to the familiar colossal beast which adorns the Jurassic Park logo actually occurred very suddenly, towards the end of its 70-million-year evolutionary period. And secondly, the fossils of the horse-sized creature suggest that the tyrannosaur, prior to its sudden growth spurt, had developed keen senses and cognitive abilities, such as the ability to hear low-frequency sounds.

As Hans Sues, chair of the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, explains of the newly found species, “Timurlengia was a nimble pursuit hunter with slender, blade-like teeth suitable for slicing through meat. It probably preyed 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.”

Steve Brusatte, who led the team of paleontologists studying the tyrannosaur fossils added, “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. 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.”

Scientists were able to find out information about the dinosaur’s enhanced cognitive capabilities thanks to the discovery of an astonishingly well-preserved Timurlengia euotica braincase. By using CT scanning and 3D printing technologies, researchers at the University of Edinburgh were able to recreate a model of the braincase in order to investigate the fossil in depth. Two holes in the braincase showed that the T. euotica had optic nerves that would have been connected to very large eyes, giving it a sharp sense of vision. Significantly, scientists also found that the dinosaur had a very long cochlea, the auditory portion of the inner ear, indicating that the dinosaur may have been able to hear low frequency sounds, such as the footsteps of prey or food approaching.

Amy Muir, an undergraduate who worked with geoscientist Ian Butler to analyze the CT scans of the fossil explains, “I mainly worked on the computer using a program called Mimics to analyze the CT scans and create a 3D model of T. euotica’s cranial anatomy. When you look at the model of T. euotica’s cranial anatomy, the first thing you notice is that it has huge ears, with wide semicircular canals. This is unusual for a tyrannosaur – usually the semicircular canals are narrower and the inner ear is smaller.” These keen senses may have helped the tyrannosaurs evolve from small predatorial dinosaurs into the hulking, top of the foodchain T.Rex by allowing them to expertly avoid pry while becoming more skilled hunters.

Thought the find is significant and has offered many clues into the only partially understood evolution of the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex, there is still much left to be discovered. As the study concludes, "Timurlengia remains a single data point from a still murky interval in dinosaur history, and future discoveries from this gap will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of how tyrannosauroids rose from marginal creatures into some of the largest terrestrial predators in Earth history.”



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Dr. Arv Edgeworth wrote at 3/17/2016 3:12:39 AM:

Dinosaurs like most reptiles probably kept growing as long as they lived. Has anyone considered the possibility that the smaller fossils were possibly the younger ones and the larger fossils were much older. We could possibly be looking at younger and older fossils of the same dinosaur species, not separate species.

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