A strange ‘Frankenstein’ dinosaur may be the ‘missing link’ between plant-eating dinosaurs and theropods – a group which includes carnivores such as T-Rex.
Chilesaurus lived 150 million years ago, and looked like a raptor – but was in fact a vegetarian.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Natural History Museum analysed 450 anatomical characteristics of early dinosaurs to place ‘Chilesaurus’ in the dinosaur family tree.
‘Chilesaurus almost looks like it was stitched together from different animals, which is why it baffled everybody,’ said Matthew Baron, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s joint first author.
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Chilesaurus, which was discovered in southern Chile, was first described in 2015.
It lived during the Late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, and has an odd collection of physical characteristics, which made it difficult to classify.
For example, its head resembles that of a carnivore, but it has flat teeth for grinding up plant matter.
‘Before this, there were no transitional specimens – we didn’t know what order these characteristics evolved in,’ said Baron. ‘This shows that in bird-hipped dinosaurs, the gut evolved first, and the jaws evolved later – it fills the gap quite nicely.’
‘There was a split in the dinosaur family tree, and the two branches took different evolutionary directions.’
‘This seems to have happened because of change in diet for Chilesaurus. It seems it became more advantageous for some of the meat eating dinosaurs to start eating plants, possibly even out of necessity.’