First Venezuelan Dino Was a Social Creature
As paleontologists increasingly unearth evidence of feathers in prehistoric fossils, our conceptions of what dinosaurs looked like when they roamed the earth has gradually evolved.
Instead of the reptilian appearance we all recognize from childhood toys and films like Jurassic Park, many dinosaurs in fact more closely resembled birds, kind of like this recently discovered little guy, Eosinopteryx brevipenna, a flightless theropod dinosaur that roamed China during the Middle/Late Jurassic period.
Archaeopteryx, also known as Urvogel, the German word for "original bird" or "first bird," was first discovered in 1860 and later fossils of this species presented some of the earliest evidence of flight in these prehistoric animals.
An intermediate creature that was not quite dinosaur but not exactly a bird either when it lived 150 million years ago, Archaeopteryx had teeth, a long tail, and wings capable of flight with claws at the end for grabbing prey.
A century after the discovery of Archaeopteryx, paleobiologists increasingly found anatomical connections between birds and dinosaurs. In the 1970s, artists began to portray dinosaurs with feathers based on accumulating evidence.
Megapnosaurus, shown here, was another species with whom researchers began early to identify with feathers. A lightweight animal that could reach up to 10 feet in length and roamed Jurassic Zimbabwe, Megapnosaurus, also known as Syntarsus, traveled in packs and preyed on small reptiles and fish.
Many of the fossils unearthed that provided evidence of feathers had deteriotated over the eons they remained buried. It wasn't until 2010 that researchers identified color pigments in feathers from dinosaurs and early birds.
Sinosauropteryx, illustrated here, was a theropod dinosaur that had "simple bristles -- precursors of feathers -- in alternate orange and white rings down its tail," according to a description of the study's findings.
Given that so many feathered dinosaurs were in fact flightless, the purpose of the feathers has been a subject of debate. Some dinosaurs may have evolved feathers for social signaling; others had plumage to provide insulation.
In the cases of some dinosaurs, such as the two oviraptors, herbivores related to T. rex that lived during the Cretaceous period, researchers believe the feathers were used for mating displays, similar to modern-day peacocks and turkeys.
Jason Brougham/University of Texas
You might be fooled into thinking the animals in this illustration are something between a murder of crows and a band of blue jays. In fact they are Microraptors that lives more than 130 million years ago.
These four-winged, plumed dinosaurs were no larger than modern-day pigeons and sported iridescent tail feathers.
Researchers believe the shimmering plumage was likely used in mating and other social interactions.
Like the diversity among birds today, not all feathered dinosaurs were lightweight, agile animals. A massive tyrannosaur that lived in China until about 65 million years ago, Yutyrannus huali, meaning "beautiful feathered tyrant," grew up to 30 feet long and could weigh more than 3,000 pounds.
This titanic tyrannosaur, as it was described, significantly increases the size range for feathered dinosaurs.
In a stunning find published in the journal Science in 2011, paleontologists uncovered dinosaur feather preserved in amber that dated back some 79 million years ago.
This discovery provided scientists a new window into the evolution of feathers in terms of structure in the evolutionary timeline from dinosaurs to birds. Even shades of color remained well preserved in the amber.
The first dinosaur found in Venezuela is one of the world's oldest, living right after the major extinction event at the end of the Triassic Period.
The 200-million-year-old dinosaur, described in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, has been named Laquintasaura venezuelae. The name was inspired by where it was discovered, the La Quinta Formation in Tachira State, Venezuela.
"Laquintasaura was a small bipedal dinosaur about 1 meter (3.3 feet) long," lead author Paul Barrett, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, told Discovery News. "It was probably largely herbivorous, but its slightly curved and elongated teeth hint at occasional omnivory. The teeth are the most distinctive feature of the new dinosaur, as their elongated, curved outline and striated surfaces are unique."
"There are many surprising firsts with Laquintasaura," Barrett said. "Not only does it expand the distribution of early dinosaurs, its age makes it important for understanding their early evolution and behavior."
Another important first for this dinosaur is that it provides the earliest likely evidence for social behavior in "bird-hipped" dinosaurs (ornithischians). The group includes species such as stegosaurus, triceratops and iguanodon.
Fossils from at least four Laquintasaura individuals were found together, with the dinosaurs ranging in age from 3 to approximately 12 years old. The researchers suspect that the dinosaurs were "gregarious" and lived together in a herd. It looks like they died together too, although the cause of their death remains a mystery.
Laquintasaura's later Cretaceous relatives were social animals, so it's theorized this characteristic emerged early among bird-hipped dinosaurs.
"It is fascinating and unexpected to see they lived in herds, something we have little evidence of so far in dinosaurs from this time," Barrett said.
So why did it take so long to find a dinosaur in Venezuela? Researchers thought the region around 200 million years ago would have been too inhospitable to support a dino, or for that matter any relatively large animal.
Because Laquintasaura munched on ferns -- and probably insects and other small prey -- suggests that Venezuela supported a richer ecosystem than was previously thought.
Another unexpected aspect is that this new dinosaur emerged just 500,000 years ago -- a veritable drop in the geological time bucket -- after the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event that led to the disappearance of at least half of Earth's species at the time.
"This shows that dinosaur evolution was either relatively unaffected by the extinction, or that they were quick to recover in its aftermath," Barrett said.
Paleontologist Marcelo Sanchez-Villagra of the University of Zurich said the new dinosaur is an important find.
"The early history of bird-hipped dinosaurs is still very patchy as so few of them have been found," Sánchez-Villagra said. "This early species plays a key role in our understanding of the evolution, not only of this group, but of dinosaurs in general."