New fossils are redefining what makes a dinosaur
Defining what’s unique about these ‘fearfully great lizards’ gets harder with new finds
“There’s a very faint dimple here,” Sterling Nesbitt says, holding up a palm-sized fossil to the light. The fossil, a pelvic bone, belonged to a creature called Teleocrater rhadinus. The slender, 2-meter-long reptile ran on all fours and lived 245 million years ago, about 10 million to 15 million years before scientists think dinosaurs first appeared.
Nesbitt, a paleontologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, tilts the bone toward the overhead light, illuminating a small depression in the fossil. The dent, about the size of a thumbprint, marks the place where the leg bone fit into the pelvis. In a true dinosaur, there would be a complete hole there in the hip socket, not just a depression. The dimple is like a waving red flag: Nope, not a dinosaur.
The hole in the hip socket probably helped dinosaurs position their legs underneath their bodies, rather than splayed to the sides like a crocodile’s legs. Until recently, that hole was among a handful of telltale features paleontologists used to identify whether they had their hands on an actual dinosaur specimen.
Another no-fail sign was a particular depression at the top of the skull. Until Teleocrater mucked things up. The creature predated the dinosaurs, yet it had the dinosaur skull depression.
The once-lengthy list of “definitely a dinosaur” features had already been dwindling over the past few decades thanks to new discoveries of close dino relatives such as Teleocrater. With an April 2017 report of Teleocrater’s skull depression (SN Online: 4/17/17), yet another feature was knocked off the list.
Today, just one feature is unique to Dinosauria, the great and diverse group of animals that inhabited Earth for about 165 million years, until some combination of cataclysmic asteroid and volcanic eruptions wiped out all dinosaurs except the birds.
“I often get asked ‘what defines a dinosaur’, ” says Randall Irmis, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. Ten to 15 years ago, scientists would list perhaps half a dozen features, he says. “The only one to still talk about is having a complete hole in the hip socket.”
The abundance of recent discoveries of dinosauromorphs, a group that includes the dinosaur-like creatures that lived right before and alongside early dinosaurs, does more than call diagnostic features into question. It is shaking up long-standing ideas about the dinosaur family tree.
To Nesbitt, all this upheaval has placed an even more sacred cow on the chopping block: the uniqueness of the dinosaur.
“What is a dinosaur?” Nesbitt says. “It’s essentially arbitrary.”