Three trackways made by tyrannosaurs have recently been unearthed in Canada. The trackways suggest the giant predators may have been pack hunters.
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.
Some 70 million years ago, three tyrannosaurs stalked together across a mud flat in Canada, possibly searching for prey.
The new insight comes from several parallel tyrannosaur tracks unearthed in Canada. The dinosaur tracks provide stronger evidence for a controversial theory: That the fearsome mega-predators hunted in packs.
The ferocious beasts may have "stuck together as a pack to increase their chances of bringing down prey and individually surviving," said study co-author Richard McCrea, a curator at the Peace Region Palaeontology Center in Canada. (See Images of the Giant Tyrannosaur Tracks)
Paleontologists have long debated whether Tyrannosaurus rex and its cousins, such as Albertosaurus, hunted alone or in groups.
While most researchers believe the predators were lone wolves, so to speak, multiple Albertosaurus specimens found in a single bone bed in Canada's Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park have led some to propose that tyrannosaurs were pack animals.
But finding groups of bones together isn't definitive evidence for pack hunting, because bones can move after death. Other circumstances can cause fossil skeletons to accumulate in one location. For instance, many carnivores wandered individually into classic predator traps, such as the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, but probably didn't hunt together in life, McCrea said.
In 2011, a local hunting outfitter and guide, Aaron Fredlund, unearthed two tyrannosaur track marks in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia and then told McCrea's team about the discovery.
The team eventually discovered a patch 197 feet (60 meters) long by 13 feet (4 m) wide filled with footprints from multiple dinosaurs, including tyrannosaurs, other small theropods, and duck-billed dinosaurs called hadrosaurs. These dinosaurs were apparently walking in the silty sediments from an overflowing river and formed the track marks about 70 million years ago. A thick layer of volcanic ash then preserved the marks, McCrea said.
In total, the team found seven tracks that were made by three tyrannosaurs. Though the researchers couldn't identify the specific species, it's likely given the period and location where they were found that Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus or Daspletosaurus left the tracks, McCrea said.
Three trackways made by tyrannosaurs have recently been unearthed in Canada. The trackways suggest the giant predators may have been pack hunters.Richard McCrea
Though the other dinosaur tracks there are all pointing in random directions, the tyrannosaur footprints are parallel with each other. The tyrannosaurs also left prints of about the same depth in the wet sediments, suggesting they crossed through the area at the same time. (As the mud dries, the depth of footprints becomes shallower.)
The new find may be one of the world's oldest examples of a missed connection. "The hadrosaur footprints are much more shallow, indicating that they came later," possibly just a few hours or days after the tyrannosaurs, McCrea told Live Science.
The new tracks suggest that the tyrannosaurs may have hunted in packs to take down large prey, just as wolves do today.
"An individual wolf would not be able to take out a moose, but a pack of them would," McCrea said.
Similarly, pack hunting could explain how tyrannosaurs could kill hadrosaurs, which are almost as large as the predators, without sustaining horrific injuries, he said.
That doesn't mean tyrannosaurs would have been friendly to one another. In fact, other fossils reveal that the dinosaurs liked to head-bite each other. But the tyrannosaurs may have stuck together to hunt because it increased their odds of survival, McCrea said.
The new discovery also highlights the rough life of these hunters. One of the beasts was missing bones in its left foot, which is in keeping with many of the injuries found on other tyrannosaur specimens, McCrea said.
The trackmarks were described today (July 22) in the journal PLOS ONE.
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