Bizarre ‘platypus’ dinosaur stuns scientists
A new ‘vegetarian’ cousin of the tyrannosaurus rex has been discovered in Chile, to the amazement of scientists worldwide. Could humans go the same way as the dinosaurs of Earth’s past?
Seven-year-old Diego Suarez was accompanying his parents on a geological trip to the Andes in 2004 when he stumbled on a piece of archaeological history. While playing in the dirt, he found the first fossilised bones of a ‘bizarre’ dinosaur which would amaze scientists around the world.
When paleontologists returned to the site and discovered the bones of at least 12 members of the new species, they were astonished that they all belonged to the same animal. Although it is thought to be a cousin of the tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptor (both members of a group called therapods), it has the horny beak and flat teeth of a plant eater. ‘It’s a therapod that turned vegetarian’ explains lead researcher Fernando Novas. It also features the stocky forelimbs of an allosaurus and two fingers in place of claws. Researchers call it an ‘unbelievably weird mix’, comparing the strange mismatch of characteristics to those of a platypus.
The Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, named in honour of its original discoverer, is believed to be a product of mosaic convergent evolution. This is the idea that parts of an organism can resemble those of an unrelated species because of similar evolutionary pressures. What is even more surprising is that in its own locality, it is the most abundant animal found, making it ‘not the exception, but the rule’. Novas says that he has no idea ‘what kind of ecological pressures must have been at work’ to produce such an unusual creature.
Despite the incredible age of its subjects, paleontology is a lively and dynamic science which is constantly making discoveries and reassessing its own findings. Last year, researchers argued that over 50 million years, therapods shrank and grew feathers, evolving into the birds in our skies today. ‘Birds’, says the study’s author Michael Lee, are ‘the only dinosaurs still alive’.
For 135 million years, our planet was ruled by a varied, advanced and abundant group of creatures which are now totally extinct. Could the same thing happen to us?
We humans like to believe that we are the end point of evolution, the finest example of millions of years of natural selection. The evolution of language and a passion for knowledge and innovation have led to a resourceful and intelligent society which has eliminated the risk of extinction. Sir David Attenborough has argued that now that most of our babies survive, we have halted natural selection.
This is sheer arrogance, others will argue. Our ancestry stretches back six million years, but this is just a tiny fraction of Earth’s history. Humans are just the latest marvel to be thrown up by evolution, not the last — and not necessarily the most impressive, either.
- If you could travel 100,000 years into the future, would you still find humans on Earth?
- Does knowing about the dinosaurs and their fate change the way you think about our own place in the world? How?
- Design your own dinosaur using well-known features from various species. What are its strengths and weaknesses? Be creative!
- Research the theories about what killed the dinosaurs. Which do you think is the most likely? Present your decision to the class.
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Q & A
- How often are new dinosaurs discovered?
- More new dinosaurs have been named in the last 20 years than the previous 100 — some have said we are in a ‘golden age’ of discovery. Last September an enormous dinosaur called the spinosaurus was found to be seven times bigger than a T-rex.
- Could humans really face a similar fate to dinosaurs?
- There is debate among scientists about what really finished them off. Most now believe that it was due to the impact of a six mile-wide asteroid, but that the dinosaurs were already suffering from changes in the earth’s biodiversity. Of course, we would like to believe that if such a catastrophe happened now, we might see it coming and find a way to survive. Perhaps this question is what fuels our fascination with post-apocalyptic novels and TV series.
- These were largely carnivores which walked on two legs, and included some of the largest predators ever to walk the Earth. However, there were variations which developed a taste for plants, fish and insects.
- Egg-laying and semi-aquatic, the platypus has a duck-like bill, otter-like feet and a beaver-like tail. Native to Australia, they baffled Europeans when they were first discovered in 1797.
- Mosaic convergent evolution
- The Chilesaurus diegosuarezi’s similarities to distinct species of dinosaur have been described as a ‘reminder’ that extinct animals cannot always be grouped together by similarities alone. One of the study’s authors, Martin Ezcurra, described the new species as ‘one of the most interesting cases of convergent evolution documented in the history of life’.
- Natural selection
- This is a theory of evolution first published by Charles Darwin which is based on the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’. As a species develops over thousands of years, only the strongest traits are passed down through the generations.