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‘Dragon thief’ dinosaur named

A reconstruction of the Dracoraptor by artist Bob Nicholls.  Image Credit: National Museum of Wales

A reconstruction of the Dracoraptor by artist Bob Nicholls. Image Credit: National Museum of Wales

The skeleton of the earliest Jurassic dinosaur ever found has been named Dracoraptor, meaning dragon thief, in a paper published today.

The dinosaur has been described by University of Portsmouth palaeontologists Dr Dave Martill and Steve Vidovic, and colleagues from the National Museum Wales and the University of Manchester.

The dinosaur skeleton was found by fossil-hunting brothers Rob and Nick Hanigan following a cliff fall at a beach in Wales in spring 2014. A year later a University of Portsmouth palaeontology student discovered the fossilised foot during a field trip to the very same spot.

The experts have concluded the new dinosaur was a very distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex and lived at the very beginning of the Jurassic period, over 200 million years ago. It is named in the journal PLOS ONE.

Dr Dave Martill with his palaeontology student Sam Davies

Dr Dave Martill with his palaeontology student Sam Davies

Dr Martill, reader in palaeobiology, said: “We invited Rob and Nick to name this beautiful little dinosaur and they suggested ‘Dracoraptor’ after draco meaning dragon, the national symbol of Wales, and raptor meaning thief or plunderer.

“The draco part of the name seemed fitting because the fossils were found in Wales and will be displayed in Wales, reflecting the red dragon of the Welsh flag. Dracoraptor was a meat-eating dinosaur that would have used its small needle-sharp teeth with steak-knife serrations to pinch bits of meat here and there, hence the part of its name meaning thief.

“Although the Hanigan brothers chose the generic name we also wanted to credit them, which is why the full name of the species is in fact Dracoraptor hanigani.”

The fossils, including its skull, claws, teeth and foot bones, were found on a beach near Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan and they have now been donated to the National Museum Wales.

The fossilised bones were found spread across five slabs of rock and although some were preserved in the correct position, others had been scattered and separated by the actions of scavenging fish and sea-urchins.

The team of researchers who identified the fossil remains found the dinosaur was a juvenile animal as some of its bones were not yet fully formed.

Dr Martill said: “This animal was small, slim and agile – probably only around 70 cm tall and 200 cm long – the size of a leopard or a cheetah maybe. It also had a long tail to help it balance.”

Palaeontology student Sam Davies’ chance discovery of the foot was the result of a cliff fall, which had exposed the fossil. If Sam had arrived at the beach any later, the fossil – found sitting on top of a slab of rock – would have been washed away by the tide of the River Severn.

Dr Martill said: “Sam’s discovery of the foot of Dracoraptor on the Severn estuary really was the most remarkable and serendipitous discovery and it’s wonderful that it will now be displayed with the rest of the specimen in the National Museum Wales, in Cardiff.”

This new specimen is the first skeleton of a theropod dinosaur found in Wales. Isolated teeth and bones of other dinosaurs have previously been found in south Wales near Penarth, Bridgend, and Cowbridge. Nearby at Barry is one of the earliest dinosaur footprint sites in Europe dating back to the Middle Triassic around 215 million years ago. But Dracoraptor’s discovery is quite spectacular compared to the previously found scrappy bits and pieces.

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  1. Very fascinating thanks to Dr Martill.

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