It's no lie—a new tyrannosaur nicknamed "Pinocchio rex" has been unearthed in China, a new study says.
The discovery confirms that long-snouted tyrannosaurs once roamed the Earth, laying to rest a long-running debate.
Formally described as Qianzhousaurus sinensis, the newfound dinosaur had a thin, long nose studded with tiny horns, a far cry from the short, muscular snout of its cousin Tyrannosaurus rex. (Related: "New Pygmy Tyrannosaur Found, Roamed the Arctic.")
At about 29 feet (9 meters) long and 1,800 pounds (800 kilograms), the dinosaur was smaller and likely sprightlier than the 42-foot-long (13 meters) T. rex. The two creatures lived side by side about 66 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period, just before the demise of the dinosaurs, according to a study published May 7 in the journal Nature Communications.
Scientists happened upon the nearly complete, "one in a million" Qianzhousaurus skeleton at a construction site in Ganzhou (map), a rapidly developing southern city that's also rich with fossils. (The tyrannosaur's first name is inspired by Qianzhou, the ancient name for Ganzhou.)
The fossil was so well preserved because soon after it died, the animal was buried with dirt, leaving it protected from erosive water and air for millennia, said study leader Junchang Lü of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing.
The study team was "really excited about" the find, said study co-author Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University in Edinburgh, in Scotland. "Big, predatory dinosaurs are everyone's favorite."
Only two fossilized tyrannosaurs with long snouts have ever been found—both of them in Mongolia and both in the Alioramus genus.
With such a scarce fossil record, scientists didn't know whether those two represented a new class of dinosaur, or were instead young tyrannosaurs that hadn't grown into their adult snouts. (Read "The Real Jurassic Park" in National Geographic magazine.)
According to Brusatte, the evidence is "unequivocal" that Pinocchio rex is a true long-snouted tyrannosaur—and thus long-snouted tyrannosaurs were a distinct breed.
There are two ways Brusatte and colleagues knew this. First, the skeleton is twice the size of the Alioramus skeletons, which alone suggests it's a full-grown adult.
Second, paleontologists who have observed hundreds of tyrannosaur skulls know how the bones join together as the animal ages—and the Qianzhousaurus skull is totally fused, resembling that of a mature T. rex.
University of Maryland vertebrate paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., who wasn't involved in the study, declared in an email interview that "it's most definitely a long-snouted tyrannosaur," and not a juvenile.
In Holtz's view, "it might be argued that this is just a fully adult member of a new species of Alioramus, but they chose to create a new genus name for it."
Qianzhousaurus is "a very interesting and unusual specimen," said paleontologist Tony Fiorillo, of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.
"These discoveries are always exciting because they help us understand the relationships between the tyrannosaurs, the dominant predators in Asia and North America during the later Cretaceous," FIorillo said in an email interview.
A Nose for Certain Tasks
So why the long snout? The scientists plan to run computer models to see what kind of prey the long-nosed dinosaur was best at catching. The long snouts of modern animals, such as crocodiles, make them adept at capturing fish.
Qianzhousaurus probably couldn't bite as strongly as T. rex because it had a weaker jaw, the scientists said. So they suspect the newfound tyrannosaur went after smaller and less challenging prey than T. rex hunted.
The fossil record at Ganzhou reveals there would have been plenty of food: The environment was lush with trees and water that hosted a panoply of life-forms including lizards; small, feathered dinosaurs called oviraptors; and long-necked plant-eaters. (Watch video: "Dinosaurs 101.")
Holtz agreed that Pinocchio rex's slender snout suggests it would have fed in a different style—and on different types and sizes of prey—than what he calls the "heavy bruiser" tyrannosaurs like T. rex.
The two tyrannosaurs' different diets meant they could have lived in relative harmony—with each other, at least.
"It would've been bad news," Brusatte joked, "if you ran into either one of them."