Researchers on Wednesday described fossils of a long-necked, four-legged, meat-eating reptile called Teleocrater rhadinus.
"The research sheds light on the distribution and diversity of the ancestors of crocodiles, birds, and dinosaurs", said Judy Skog, a program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. Around 250 million years ago, that group diversified into two lineages - one led to today's crocodiles, the other led to the "avemetatarsalins", which included dinosaurs and eventually birds.
Paleontologists reported that the remains belonged to an extinct carnivorous creature called Teleocrater rhadinus, which wasn't a direct forerunner to dinosaurs. They estimate Teleocrater was 6 to 10 feet long, with a long neck and longer tail, and weighed 20 to 65 pounds.
Teleocrater rhadinus existed just after a group of animals known as archosaurs divided into a branch that later evolved into dinosaurs and another branch that led to the alligators and crocodiles we know today. He identified it as an archosaur and named it Teleocrater, but the designation was never made official, nor was the creature ever placed on the dinosaur family tree. Several features thought to be unique to dinosaurs in fact are already present in Teleocrater rhadinus, showing that they evolved much earlier.
"There is a depression of the top of the head that is in Teleocrater and in dinosaurs", Dr Sterling Nesbitt from Virginia Tech Institute told MailOnline.
Its anatomy combines features present in the last common ancestor of these groups, such as a crocodilian-like ankle joint, with some features considered characteristic of dinosaurs. Also, it has been confusing scientists with its unusual appearance as it is believed to have boasted with crocodilian-like features, while still being more closely related to the dinosaur side of the family.
Most paleontologists say that the earliest ancestors of the dinosaurs looked like smaller versions of the saurians.
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Life reconstruction of the new species Teleocrater rhadinus, a close relative of dinosaurs.
"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".
The excavated Teleocrater rhadinus fossil measured six to seven feet long.
The findings provide new insight into the evolution of archosaurs, a group that contains dinosaurs, birds, pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and crocodilians.
This very important question was settled recently after scientists discovered the missing ankle bone and other new fragments in Southern Tanzania.
The team, which includes researchers from the United States, England, Argentina, South Africa, Sweden and Russian Federation, identified several features, like a depression in its skull, that further showed the Teleocrater was an archosaur from the bird lineage.
The intact ankle bones and other parts of the skeleton of the new specimens of teleocrater, helped scientists determine that the species is one of the oldest members of the archosaur tree and had a crocodylian look.