Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fossil of stocky new predatory dinosaur unearthed in Romania


WASHINGTON — The fossil of a stocky new dinosaur with two sets of claws on its feet unearthed in Romania has given researchers a window into what European predators looked like in the final years of the Age of Dinosaurs.

"We've all been waiting for something like this," said study author Mark Norell, chair of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

"Balaur bondoc is heavy, with unexpectedly stocky limbs and fused bones. It shows just how unusual the fauna of the area was during the waning years of the dinosaur era."

Balaur bondoc -- which means "stocky dragon" -- is related to the Velociraptor but has 20 unique characteristics.

It was relatively small -- about 1.8 to 2.1 meters long including its tail, with a body about the size of an oversized turkey -- and walked on powerful hind legs. Enormous muscles attachment areas in the pelvis indicated it was adapted for strength over speed.

Its hand was atrophied and some of the bones were atrophied, which would have made grasping difficult and indicates that the lower limbs were used to grasp and disembowel prey.

"Balaur is a new breed of predatory dinosaur," said co-author Stephen Brusatte, a graduate student at Columbia University.

"Its anatomy shows that it probably hunted in a different way than its less stocky relatives," he said in a statement.

"Compared to Velociraptor, Balaur was probably more of a kickboxer than a sprinter, and it might have been able to take down larger animals than itself, as many carnivores do today."

It prowled Romania during the Late Cretaceous period -- about 90 to 65 million years ago -- when warm temperatures and high sea levels fragmented Europe into small islands.

Herbivores unearthed from the period were also dwarfed -- like sauropods the size of cows and tiny duck-billed dinosaurs -- but Balaur bondoc is the first reasonably complete skeleton of a carnivorous dinosaur discovered which was dated to that time.

"Balaur might be one of the largest predators in this ecosystem because not even a big tooth has been found in Romania after over a hundred years of research," said co-author Zoltan Csiki of the University of Bucharest.

Fragments of Balaur had been discovered more than a decade ago, but its body was "so weird we didn't have any idea where to fit them," he added.

"As European dinosaur faunas were known to be peculiar, we half-expected to find peculiar predators as well," Csiki said. "But, as the first good record of these, Balaur surely exceeds our most daring expectations."

The new dinosaur was described in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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