May 24, 2012
Some dinosaur lineages are more famous than others. I can say “tyrannosaur” and most anyone immediately knows what I’m talking about: a big-headed, small-armed predator similar to the notorious Tyrannosaurus rex. The same goes for “stegosaur,” and of course it helps that Stegosaurus itself is the famous emblem of this bizarre group. But public understanding hasn’t kept up with new discoveries. In the past two decades, paleontologists have identified various dinosaur lineages vastly different from the classic types that gained their fame during the Bone Wars era of the late 19th century. One of those relatively obscure groups is the abelisaurids: large theropod dinosaurs such as Carnotaurus with high, short skulls and ridiculously stubby arms that make T. rex look like Trogdor the Burninator. And paleontologists Diego Pol and Oliver Rauhut have just described an animal close to the beginning of this group of supreme predators—a dinosaur from the dawn of the abelisaurid reign.
Pol and Rauhut named the dinosaur Eoabelisaurus mefi. Discovered in roughly 170-million-year-old Jurassic rock near Chubut, Argentina, the mostly complete dinosaur skeleton is about 40 million year older than the next oldest abelisaurid skeleton. Eoabelisaurus, placed in context with other theropod dinosaurs of the same era, represents a time when predatory dinosaurs were undergoing a major radiation. Early members of many terrifying Cretaceous predators such as the tyrannosaurs and abelisaurids had already appeared by the Middle to Late Jurassic.
Not all of these Jurassic predators looked quite like their later Cretaceous counterparts. Jurassic tyrannosaurs such as Juratyrant and Stokesosaurus were relatively small predators, unlike their bulky, titanic relatives from the Late Cretaceous. Eoabelisaurus was a little closer to what was to come.
Despite being many tens of millions of years older than relatives such as Carnotaurus and Majungasaurus, the newly described dinosaur displays some tell-tale features that characterize the group. While a significant portion of the dinosaur’s skull is missing, the head of Eoabelisaurus had the short, deep profile seen among other abelisaurids. And this dinosaur already had distinct forelimbs. Much like its later relatives, Eoabelisaurus had a strange combination of heavy shoulder blades but wimpy forelimbs, with a long upper arm compared to the lower part of the arm. The dinosaur’s condition was not as extreme as in Carnotaurus—a dinosaur whose lower forelimbs were so strange that we have no idea what, if anything, Carnotaurus was doing with its arms—but they were still comparatively small and tipped with little fingers good for wiggling but probably useless in capturing prey.
And with a 40-million-year gap between Eoabelisaurus and its closest kin, there are plenty of other abelisaurids to find. The question is where they are. Is their record so poor that very few were preserved? Or are they waiting in relatively unexplored places? Now that the history of these blunt-skulled predators has been pushed back, paleontologists can target places to look for the carnivores.
Pol, D., Rauhut, O. (2012). A Middle Jurassic abelisaurid from Patagonia and the early diversification of theropod dinosaurs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 1-6 : 10.1098/rspb.2012.0660