They say good things come in small packages, and that obviously extends to the field of paleontology when scientists are able to link evolutionary descendants together to determine the origins of some of our favorite prehistoric beasts.
The latest family tree association hails from the Arizona Museum of Natural History, where scientists recently announced the discovery of a mid-Cretaceous Period tyrannosaur officially named Suskityrannus hazelae, which existed 20 million years before its behemoth cousin.
This diminutive three-foot-tall relative of the thunderous Tyrannosaurus rex was first unearthed in New Mexico circa 1998 by Virginia Tech paleontologist Sterling Nesbitt when he was just a 16-year-old, dino-loving high school student digging around in the dirt. But at the time, researchers and specialists remained unaware of the incredible significance of the partial skeletons, believing instead that they were the primeval remains of a dromaeosaur-like Velociraptor.
These fantastic findings were finally published this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution and detail the remarkable familial properties of the 92-million-year-old fossils revealed in the original 1998 dinosaur excavation site led by Doug Wolfe.
“Essentially, we didn’t know we had a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex for many years,” said Nesbitt in an official statement. “Suskityrannus has a much more slender skull and foot than its later and larger cousins, the Tyrannosaurus rex,” Nesbitt explained in the statement. “The find also links the older and smaller tyrannosauroids from North America and China with the much larger tyrannosaurids that lasted until the final extinction of non-avian dinosaurs.”
Scientists estimate that Suskityrannus hazelae was nearly nine feet long and tipped the scales at somewhere between 45 and 90 pounds, comparatively tiny when placed side by side with a nine-ton adult Tyrannosaurus rex.
“Suskityrannus gives us a glimpse into the evolution of tyrannosaurs just before they take over the planet,” Nesbitt explains. “It also belongs to a dinosaurian fauna that just proceeds the iconic dinosaurian faunas in the latest Cretaceous that include some of the most famous dinosaurs, such as the Triceratops, predators like Tyrannosaurus rex, and duckbill dinosaurs like Edmotosaurus.”
What do you think of this pint-sized predator, and would you be surprised to see some in the next installment of the Jurassic Park franchise?