By Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz
Santiago, Jan 11 (EFE).- A group of researchers has discovered in Patagonia an extinct species of dinosaur that reached 10 meters (33 feet) in length, weighed up to a ton and was at the top of the food chain in the region 70 million years ago.
The find was discussed in a study by Chilean and US researchers based on fossilized remains recovered on various paleontological campaigns between 2016 and 2020 near Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, the University of Chile announced Wednesday.
It constitutes the southernmost fossil record of “theropod” dinosaurs – the same group to which Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors belong – and the find is a key element in understanding the animal life that inhabited the far southern regions of the world near the end of the so-called Age of Dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
“One of the main characteristics of the dinosaur (that’s been) found is that probably its body was completely covered with feathers, it had curved claws on its feet and it had an elongated snout with many small teeth, something that’s rather peculiar,” said Jared Amudeo, a researcher with the university’s Paleontological Network.
The theropod was a carnivore and helps round out our knowledge of the food chain in Patagonia 70 million years ago because, although scientists already knew what the natural environment was like there at that time, they had not yet found the fossilized remains of any large carnivores at the top of the food chain.
The remains found in Patagonia are mainly teeth and bones that show the diverse community of theropods living in the area 65-75 million years ago.
The Las Chinas River valley, near the city of Puerto Natales, is the area where the fossils studied by the researchers were found, a zone where 70 million years ago there was a river delta with abundant vegetation that fostered the emergence of big dinosaurs.
That same area is one of the world’s most paleontologically rich zones, containing fossils of numerous species of dinosaurs and vegetation from tens of millions of years ago.
Specifically, the area is of interest due to the abundance of remains from 20 million years before the dinosaurs all went extinct 66 million years ago, as well as because was one of the connecting land links between Patagonia and Antarctica between 83-66 million years ago, with additional land bridges to what are now New Zealand and Australia.
The investigation also identified two groups of birds that lived during that ancient time – Ornithurinae and Enantiornithes – the former a group that ultimately evolved into modern-day birds and the latter a more abundant group of birds from that period that are similar to modern-day sparrows, but with teeth.
The study revealed that those species were the ancestors of modern birds but they also open the door to future research, given that “The presence of primitive birds in the area gives us more indications that in the extreme south of Latin America ancient direct ancestors to modern birds might be found,” said Amudeo.
The presence of bird remains in such high latitudes, in far southern Chile, could give clues about areas where ancient birds were able to find refuge and survive the catastrophic meteor strike and its aftermath that ended the reign of the “thunder lizards.”
“We still need to know how life got started again after the dinosaurs’ extinction to give rise to the diversity of birds that remain alive (today),” the director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute and co-chief of the investigation, Marcelo Leppe, said.