Scientist's Finds Spur New Thinking on Dino Evolution

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Throughout the 1990s, expeditions to Niger and Morocco bought more stunning discoveries, which included:

Afrovenator abakensis ("African hunter"), the most complete skeleton of the Cretaceous era ever found in Africa, 130 million years old
Carcharodontosaurus, a 90 million-year-old shark-toothed predator that was at least as big as Tyrannosaurus but had a brain only half as large
Deltadromeus ("agile delta runner"), a 90 million-year-old predator with very delicate long limbs
Suchomimus tenerensis ("crocodile mimic from the Ténéré"), a 100 million-year-old sail-backed dinosaur with a long crocodile-like snout that it used to catch fish
Jobaria, a 135 million-year-old "graceful giant" sauropod with spoon-shaped teeth
Nigersaurus taqueti, an odd sauropod 110 million years old with 600 teeth and a mouth described as being "like a Hoover vacuum"

Recently, Sereno and his colleagues reported the discovery of other new and unsual dinsosaurs in Africa, along with several new crocodilians, ranging from 40-foot Sarcosuchus, or "Supercroc," to a dwarf croc the size of a cookie.

"Such finds are rapidly filling in Africa's dinosaur world during its phase of isolation during the Cretaceous," Sereno said.

Sereno is especially intrigued by some of the Africa fossils because many of the dinosaurs lived at a time when it's widely believed that the supercontinent Pangea was breaking apart to form the continents we know today. One land mass, which eventually separated into Africa and South America, drifted south, while another moved north.

According to most estimates, the continental breakup occurred about 150 million years ago. But Sereno's findings are at odds with that assumption. His evidence shows that some of the African dinosaurs dwelled tens of millions of years after the start of the continental drift, yet they're more closely related to North American dinosaurs than to dinosaurs from the southern land mass.

The results, he said, suggest that the break was not complete and intercontinental land bridges may have existed much longer than thought.

In a 1999 report in the journal Science, Sereno said: "I think there was some kind of a tenuous land bridge [linking Europe and Africa] for several million years" after initial breakup of Pangaea. "That land mass prevented the evolution, in isolation, of a unique southern dinosaur fauna."

Another question that arises is why distinct families of dinosaurs lived side by side during the Lower Cretaceous but apparently evolved at dramatically different speeds. Jobaria, for example, seemed not to have changed its anatomy much at all through millions of years, resembing its ancestors from much farther back, in the Triassic.

Why was Jobaria so well adapted that it didn't need to change? It's one of many evolutionary mysteries that remain to be answered.

New Tools of Analysis

Fossils are critical evidence in piecing together the evolution of dinosaurs because the anatomical features reveal relationships between different groups. What kinds of features do they share, and what defining characteristics differentiate various groups?

Paleontologists use a different kind of family tree, known as cladistics, to aid such research. The system classifies animals into like groups based on shared characteristics, showing possible evolutionary steps between different groups.

Another valuable new tool is the relatively new science of systematics, which emerged about the same time Sereno was starting his career in the 1980s. Systematics makes it possible to assemble a huge database of anatomical and other details about organisms and analyze them to look for patterns, similarities, and differences that point to large-scale rules at work.

With more comprehensive data and computer simulations, the current fragmented picture of dinosaur evolution will gradually give way to a more coherent and global understanding, Sereno noted.

As that happens, it should help Sereno answer many major evolutionary questions about dinosaurs that are the focus of new work.

"Why did it take 50 million years for dinosaurian predators and herbivores to reach their maximum body size but mammals only a handful?" he asked. "And why is there so much empty ecospace during the Mesozoic by comparison to mammals during the Cenozoic—where are the burrowers, the climbers, the aquatic specialists?"

The answers, he suggested, lie in the posture and body size of early dinosaurs and the constraints these imposed on all subsequent evolution.

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