Early dinosaur cousins had crocodile-like features

Excavation

Researchers on Wednesday described fossils of a long-necked, four-legged, meat-eating reptile called Teleocrater rhadinus. Teleocrater, living more than 245 million years ago during the Triassic Period, pre-dated dinosaurs. This species isn't exactly new to science: Paleontologist F. Rex Parrington first found fossils in Tanzania in 1933 and English paleontologist Alan J. Charig (a posthumous co-author of this paper) characterized the bones roughly two decades later. Based on a fossil unearthed in southern Tanzania, these early relatives were carnivorous animals that measured approximately 7-10 feet long, with long necks and tails.

Teleocrater rhadinus appeared just after a large group of animals known as archosaurs split into one branch that led to dinosaurs (and, eventually, birds) and another branch that led to today's alligators and crocodiles.

Ken Angielczyk, associate curator of fossil mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, who is also a study author, said: 'Teleocrater has unexpectedly crocodile-like features that are causing us to completely reassess what we thought about the earliest stages of dinosaur evolution. "That tells us that the crocodile ankle was primitive for the earliest archosaurs and that the bird ankle was derived from a crocodile-like ankle". Some of its features, like the jaw muscle attachments at the back of its skull, clearly put it in the bird-like archosaur camp with the dinos, it has a lot in common with its more distant crocodilian cousins, researchers said.

Study co-author Richard Butler of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom added: "Dinosaurs were amazingly successful animals". This old ancestor is apparently the missing link between dinosaurs and the ancient crocodilian ancestors they had. Its joints could rotate from side to side, meaning it probably walked more like a crocodile too - think side to side as opposed to the up-and-down motion of say, and ostrich walking.

Scientists have long wondered what the earliest dinosaur relatives looked like.

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Life reconstruction of the new species Teleocrater rhadinus, a close relative of dinosaurs.

Known as a Teleocrater, the creature in question was classified as an archosaur - a group which included birds, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and crocodilians, according to the New York Times. "But regardless, Teleocrater is obviously an important animal". The findings were published April 12 in the journal Nature, and it was conducted by a group of paleontologists and scientists from around the world.

Researchers first discovered Teleocrater rhadinus, a common ancestor of birds and dinosaurs, in Tanzania several decades ago, but missing bones made it hard for scientists to accurately model the reptile. Scientists called it a close cousin rather than a direct dinosaur ancestor.

Teleocrater's remains were found in the same Tanzanian region as fossils of the two-legged meat-eater Nyasasaurus, which lived perhaps a couple of million years later.

The team is set to return to the dig site to try to find the final missing parts of the Teleocrater skeleton and ultimately shed further light on the earliest dinosaur relatives. "Teleocrater has very long neck vertebrate-so a very long neck-and this is something we see in the earliest dinosaurs", Butler says.

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