Wales Gets a New Dinosaur – Dracoraptor

The Dragon Thief of Wales – Dracoraptor hanigani

The beautifully preserved meat-eating dinosaur fossil found at Lavernock Point (south Wales) has been formally named and described.  Say hello to Dracoraptor hanigani, a two metre long predator whose fossilised remains were found by brothers Rob and Nick Hanigan.  Reporting in the open access on line journal “PLOS One”, the fossilised material very probably represents the oldest known Jurassic dinosaur found to date in the British Isles.

Dracoraptor hanigani – An Agile Little Hunter

On display the fossils with a skeleton reconstruction.

On display the fossils with a skeleton reconstruction.

Picture Credit: National Museum of Wales

To read more about this exciting fossil find: Welsh Dinosaurs – New Early Jurassic Theropod from South Wales

The genus name means “dragon thief”, in honour of one of the national symbols of Wales, the species name honours the two fossil-hunting brothers who found it.  This little hunter may only be distantly related to the “raptors”, but it does represent a significant fossil find, as dinosaurs are particularly rare in Lower Jurassic rocks.  Dracoraptor, lived on an island archipelago, some 201.3 million years ago, plus or minus 200,000 years, the preserved bones and teeth (some 40% of the skeleton), have been so precisely dated in geological terms thanks to biostratigraphic dating of the strata.  The rock layers can be divided up into distinct zones (biozones) based on the characteristic fossils that layer contains.  The dinosaur’s remains were found between two well-documented zonal layers.  It was found above a conodont* zone (Chirodella verecunda), associated with the very end of the Triassic and below an ammonite zone Psiloceras planorbis, which is associated with the first faunal stage (Hettangian) of the Jurassic.

*Conodonts are an extinct group of tiny, jawless, marine animals that had mouths filled with several pairs of tooth-bars.  They are believed to be related to early, jawless fish and probably superficially resembled eels.  Their distinctive teeth, often found in abundance, provide very useful “markers” in rocks, helping palaeontologists to date the relative ages of different rock layers.  Conodonts became extinct at the end of the Triassic.

Helping to Understand the Early Diversity of the Dinosauria

The fossil, collected from a cliff fall at Lavernock Point, has had a charmed life.  Firstly, the fossil was found in marine sediments, apparently, the carcase of this little dinosaur was washed out to sea and settled on the sea floor.  Sea urchins crawled over it and most likely fed on the rotting flesh, some of these sea urchins have been preserved in the surrounding rock matrix.  Currents did not disturb the bones, which explains why the specimen is so complete.  In addition, if Rob and Nick Hanigan had not chanced upon the specimen, the fossils would have been washed out to sea and lost forever in just a few days.

Furthermore, Everything Dinosaur reported on the serendipitous discovery of more of the specimen, by third year palaeontology student Sam Davies, who coincidently is tutored by one of the authors of the PLOS One paper, Dr. David Martill (School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth).

To read more about Sam’s lucky find: Lucky Find Puts Welsh Dinosaur on a Firm Footing

Views of One of the Teeth Associated with the Specimen (Presumed to be from the Upper Jaw)

This dinosaur probably ate insects and other small animals.

This dinosaur probably ate insects and other small animals.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

Explaining the significance of this fossil discovery, co-author of the paper Steven Vidovic (PhD Researcher at Portsmouth University), commented:

“It’s right at that point in the diversification of dinosaurs where so-called Theropod dinosaurs,  the meat-eating ones, became what are called Neotheropods.  It’s from this moment onwards that they go on to become all the forms we know, like T. rex, Velociraptor and even birds.”

Very Rare Fossil Find

Early Jurassic dinosaur fossils are extremely rare and this particular specimen, which may represent an immature adult, is very important as it provides data on the evolution of meat-eating dinosaurs so soon after the Triassic/Jurassic extinction event.  Dracoraptor hanigani is the first dinosaur to be described from the Jurassic of Wales.  It probably lived on a small island (part of St David’s Archipelago), or perhaps its corpse had been washed out sea from the nearby, larger land mass known as the Welsh Massif.  It is one of very few early Theropod remains found in Europe.

The Palaeogeography of the Early Jurassic (Europe – Hettangian)

Europe consisted of a series of islands 200 million years ago.

Europe consisted of a series of islands 200 million years ago.

Picture Credit: PLOS One

The picture above show the palaeogeography of western Europe, approximately 200 million years ago.  Modern western Europe has been superimposed to provide a reference.  The numbers in the small, yellow circles record the location of other early Theropod or Neotheropod discoveries:

  1. Isle of Skye
  2. Barrow upon Soar (Leicestershire)
  3. Wilmcote (Warwickshire)
  4. Lavernock Point – the location of the Dracoraptor find
  5. Dorset
  6. Airel (France)
  7. Brouch (Luxembourg)

A cladistic analysis suggests that Dracoraptor was a basal Neotheropod and it may have been related to Tawa hallae and Daemonosaurus chauliodus ( both from the Ghost Ranch location, New Mexico, United States).  Everything Dinosaur has written about the discovery of both Tawa and Daemonosaurus, for further information on these fast-running little predators, see the links below.

To read more about Tawa: New Theropoda Dinosaur Discovery Sheds Light on Dinosaur Diversification

To read more about Daemonosaurus: Little Demon from the Dawn of the Dinosaurs

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