Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Scientists have discovered a new type of dinosaur which could unlock the mystery of how humans evolved so quickly after the Ice Age. The remains of 20 skeletons found in North-east China earlier this year have been identified as a ferocious type of pterodactyl named Darwinopterus. The dinosaur was christened Darwinopterus because it was found 200 years since Darwin's birth and 150 years since 'Origin of the Species' was published.
Researchers say the discovery plugs an evolutionary gap in pterodactyls - which has baffled scientists for decades - by explaining how they developed so quickly. Pterosaurs ruled the skies of the Mesozoic era, which lasted from about 250 to 65 million years ago. Scientists have previously found 130 different types of pterodactyls that fall into two groups - the primitive long-tailed and advanced short-tailed ones. But there was a gaping evolutionary hole between the smaller, ancient pterosaurs and more modern ones, which grew to gargantuan proportions and, unlike their ancestors, could walk. The new type of pterodactyl fits the period 160 million years ago that saw one group evolve to the next.
Darwinopterus was a 2ft long hawk-like creature had huge talons that were used to snare other pterodactyls and flying mammals in mid air and pin them to the ground. The flying dinosaur then used its powerful head and long jaw with rows of 15cm fangs to tear chunks of flesh from its victims.
Professor David Unwin, from Leicester University's School of Museum Studies, said: 'The discovery of Darwinopterus was a total shock and it has created a real buzz of excitement. I was shown the fossil and I said "no way, that's fake" but upon closer inspection we all realised that this was one of the most important discoveries in a long time.
The discovery shows that large parts of dinosaurs bodies such as the head and body 'morphed' rapidly over a short period of time. This dispels Darwin's theory that small body parts such as a finger nail or tooth change gradually and could explain how humans developed so quickly from mammals. Scientists believe that this controversial type of 'modular evolution' will prove that there were hundreds and thousands more dinosaurs alive that have never been discovered. It could also explain how mammals and humans evolved new body parts so quickly after dinosaurs died out in the Ice Age.
Professor Unwin added: 'This could be one of the most significant discoveries in evolution since Darwin published his famous book. 'The evolution of Darwinopterus was quick with lots of big changes concentrated into a short period of time. And whole groups of features that form important structures such as the skull, the neck, or the tail, seem to have evolved together.’
Posted by John Edwards at 00:06
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