Although the predator looked a lot like a dinosaur, “it cannot be classified as a dinosaur because it doesn’t share all of the unique features that dinosaurs share,” Nesbitt told Seeker. But he noted that “Teleocrater shares more characteristics with dinosaurs and their relatives than with crocodiles and their relatives.”
Teleocrater was dated to 245 million years ago, close to the time when early reptiles known as archosaurs diverged into two major lineages: one that led to crocodylians (aquatic reptiles like alligators and crocodiles) and another that, through dinosaurs, eventually led to today’s birds. Teleocrater is now the oldest known member of the latter group.
Given this important positioning, Teleocrater is sure to be used as a model animal for understanding dinosaur origins. Previously, Triassic reptiles like Lagerpeton and Marasuchus were in this role, but Teleocrater is even older.
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“Teleocrater was part of a side branch of dinosaur cousin,” Nesbitt said. “It never became a dinosaur, just like a chimp will never become a human.”
As a result, the species has no direct living descendants today. Nevertheless, it possessed both iconic crocodile and dinosaur characteristics some 10 million years before the first unambiguous dinosaurs evolved in what are now Argentina, Brazil, Zimbabwe, and India.
“Teleocrater and its close relatives show that the overall body plan that once was thought to characterize crocodile-line reptiles was also present in the first members of the lineage that led to dinosaurs,” co-author Martin Ezcurra of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires said in a statement.
Teleocrater and its relatives, which form a group called Aphanosauria per the new paper, were very widespread. Their remains have been found not only in what is now Africa but also in Russia, India, and Brazil.
Nesbitt said that the Triassic Period has long been considered to be the great “Age of Crocodile Relatives” because these aquatic reptiles were diverse, abundant, and located across much of the planet during that time. Now it’s known that Teleocrater and other close relatives of dinosaurs were equally diverse and widespread during the same time, setting the stage for dinosaurs dominating the Jurassic Period.
Co-author Paul Barrett, who worked with Charig at the Natural History Museum in London, said that his late colleague “would have been thrilled to see one of ‘his’ animals finally being named and occupying such an interesting position in the Tree of Life.”
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