"Surprisingly, early dinosaur relatives were pretty profoundly not dinosaur-like... scientists generally don't love the term "missing link" but that's kind of what Teleocrater is: a missing link between dinosaurs and the common ancestor they share with crocodiles".
Study co-author Richard Butler, from the University of Birmingham, UK, tells Newsweek the relationship between T. rhadinus and dinosaurs is similar to that of great apes and humans.
Researchers previously thought that the early dinosaurs were about the size of a chicken and walked on two legs.
The carnivorous reptile measured between 7 and 10 feet (2 and 3 meters) long and sported a lengthy neck and tail, Nesbitt told Live Science. The fact that is has certain anatomical features does not suggest these traits were passed on from it to dinosaurs (they weren't) but rather that these traits evolved earlier than we thought in this entire archosaur branch.
Scientists have identified the oldest-known forerunner of the dinosaurs and are expressing surprise at how little it actually resembled one.
To be clear: Teleocrater is not an ancestor of dinosaurs, but an earlier animal that evolved post-split with the crocodilians.
During an excavation in a basin in southern Tanzania, Africa, paleontologists unearthed the fossil of one of the oldest relatives of the dinosaur.
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Researchers place the species as a resemblance to dinosaurs or crocodilians largely because the first specimen lacked crucial bones including ankle bones.
"We found fossils that we thought might be from Teleocrater, but it wasn't until we were back in the lab that we realized we'd found something really fantastic", shared Kenneth Angielczyk, one of the authors of the paper, which details the findings.
New revelations have come to light regarding the earliest relatives of the dinosaur.
"The discovery of such an important new species is a once-in-a-lifetime experience‚" said Sterling Nesbitt‚ a paleobiologist at Virginia Tech and lead author of the Nature paper. Although dinosaur predators had two legs, Teleocrater instead was four-legged. So our classic idea of the closest relatives of dinosaurs (and by influence what dinosaur ancestors were like), has been that they were very small, fast moving bipedal animals. One of those groups evolved into dinosaurs, birds and pterosaurs, while the other evolved into crocodilians, such as the crocodiles and alligators still alive today.
Indeed, Teleocrater isn't a completely new discovery. The combined work allowed Teleocrater's position in the archosaur family tree to be finally determined. "Teleocrater fundamentally challenges our models of what dinosaur relatives would have looked like". The first Teleocrater fossils were discovered in Tanzania in 1933 by paleontologist F. Rex Parrington. This new analysis fills in some gaps in the fossil record and can provide more clues about the origins of dinosaur evolution.
The team that discovered the Teleocrater bones will head back to southern Tanzania to look for more remains and missing parts.
The new Teleocrater fossils prove this creature was part of the bird and dinosaur family, an ancestor that lived right after dinosaurs split from the crocodile-like family on the evolutionary tree around 250 million years ago.