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Dino Look-Alike? Researchers Identify Strange Species of Extinct Reptile Predating Dinosaurs

Sep 23, 2016 04:41 AM EDT
Pachycephalosaurus Skull
Researchers has identified a new species of extinct reptiles that is estimated to be 230 million years old that has the similar dome-shaped head as the Pachycephalosaurus that lived more than 100 million years later.
(Photo : Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City (Pachycephalosaur Skull)/Wikimedia Commons)

A team of multi-institutional paleontologists and researchers has identified and named a new species of extinct reptiles believed to be 230 million years old, predating dinosaurs.

The most peculiar characteristic of the new species, named Triopticus primus, is its thickened skull roof, which is very similar to the distantly related pachycephalosaur dinosaurs that lived more than 100 million years later.

The discovery, described in a paper published in the journal Current Biology, suggests that iconic dinosaur shapes and bone structures were already present in some animals hundred million years before dinosaurs appeared.

"After the enormous mass extinction 250 million years ago, reptiles exploded onto the scene and almost immediately diversified into many different sizes and shapes. These early body shapes were later mimicked by dinosaurs," explained Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of paleontology at Virginia Tech and co-author of the study, in a press release.

In order to reconstruct the brain structure of Triopticus, the researchers put the fossil specimen under CT scan at The University of Texas at Austin. The scan revealed that bone and brain structure of the extinct reptile is also similar to the much later dome-headed dinosaur.

At present, the researchers only have a fragment of a skull, making it nearly impossible to determine the precise looks and size of the Triopticus. However, researchers estimate that the ancient reptile was likely no bigger than an alligator. The remainder of the face and jaw, the vertebrae, and the rest of the skeleton is missing, either long lost to natural elements, waiting to be found in the field still, or inside a plaster jacket not yet opened at the lab at UT Austin.

The fossil of the Triopticus was found in Otis Chalk, Texas. Surprisingly, many of the fossils of Triassic reptiles uncovered together with the Triopticus also shared similar structures found in later dinosaurs. Researchers believed that the dinosaurs have evolved to mimic the body shapes of ancient reptiles after the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, which wiped out the first group of reptiles.

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