A big brain, keen hearing and a fortuitous extinction event all likely helped create the biggest, baddest carnivore that ever walked the earth, according to a study on a newly discovered ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex.
The horse-sized dinosaur fills gaps in the fossil record of T. rex evolution, helping to solve many mysteries about the enormous carnivore that was at the top of the terrestrial food chain before it went extinct as the Age of Dinosaurs came to a close about 65 million years ago.
We now know that, long before T. rex emerged, "tyrannosaurs were already hardwired with the sensory arsenal of a top predator before they got to be super giants," project leader Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences told Discovery News.
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The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Co-authors Alexander Averianov and Hans-Dieter Sues found the remains of the new tyrannosaur while conducting expeditions in the remote deserts of Uzbekistan, Central Asia. They named the tyrannosaur Timurlengia euotica after a central Asian warlord, Timur, and also with a word meaning "well eared." The word refers to the new dinosaur's incredible sense of hearing.
Brusatte explained that the 90-million-year-old dino had a very long spiral cavity of the inner ear (cochlea), which allowed it to hear low frequency sounds that would have been undetected by other dinosaurs.
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On top of this super sensory hearing, "Timurlengia was a nimble pursuit hunter with slender, blade-like teeth suitable for slicing through meat," Sues said, adding that "it probably preyed on the various large plant-eaters, especially early duck-billed dinosaurs, which shared its world."
The fast-running, long-legged Timurlengia was just a fraction of the size of T. rex, which could grow to be 40 feet long, 20 feet tall and weighed as much as 9 tons. The dichotomy in size strongly suggests that during the final 20 million years of the Cretaceous, tyrannosaurs evolved enormous bodies in a relatively short period of time.
As for why, Brusatte said "it is interesting that there was a mass extinction event about 94 million years ago, seemingly caused by extensive volcanism leading to global warming."
He suspects that the extinction of prior top carnivores left a void for "tyrannosaurs (to) opportunistically take over the apex predator role," but he said more fossils from the middle Cretaceous would be needed to test the theory.