Just how DO you get to the top of the food chain?

Every child knows that the “Tyrant Lizard King” was the biggest, baddest dinosaur of them all. But how did Tyrannosaurus rex and its close relatives become such fearsome predators? The fossilized remains of a newly discovered horse-sized dinosaur reveal the answer.


Artits rendering of new dinosaur

Life reconstruction of the new tyrannosaur Timurlengia euotica in its environment 90 million years ago. It is accompanied by two flying reptiles (Azhdarcho longicollis). Original painting by Todd Marshall

Paleontologists have long known from the fossil record that tyrannosaurs evolved from small-bodied specie, but little was known about how tyrannosaurs became the giant, intelligent predators that dominated the landscape about 70 to 80 million years ago. The newly discovered species, named Timurlengia euotica, lived about 90 million years ago and fills a 20 million-year gap in the fossil record of tyrannosaurs. The new species is a member of the tyrannosaur family but not a direct ancestor of the T. rex.

The new research, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that much of the tyrannosaur’s enormous growth in size occurred suddenly about 70 million years ago, after the dinosaurs had already developed keen senses and cognitive abilities, including the ability to hear low-frequency sounds. They were positioned to reach the top of their food chain in the Late Cretaceous Period after other groups of large meat-eating dinosaurs had gone extinct about 80–90 million years ago.

Timurlengia was a nimble pursuit hunter with slender, blade-like teeth suitable for slicing through meat,” said Hans Sues, chair of the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “It probably preyed on the various large plant-eaters, especially early duck-billed dinosaurs, which shared its world. Clues from the life of Timurlengia allow us to fill in gaps and better understand the life and evolution of other related dinosaurs, like T. rex.”

Sues and Alexander Averianov, a senior scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, collected the fossils at the center of the study between 1997 and 2006 while co-leading international expeditions to the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan.

Field camp in desert

Field camp of the Uzbek-Russian-British-American-Canadian expedition at Dzharakuduk in the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan. The fossils of Timurlengia eutica were found about midway along the cliffs in the background. (Photo by Igor Danilov )

“Central Asia was the place where many of the familiar groups of Cretaceous dinosaurs had their roots,” Sues said. “The discoveries from the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan are now helping us to trace the early history of these animals, many of which later flourished in our own backyard in North America.”

Sues and a team of paleontologists led by Steve Brusatte at the University of Edinburgh studied tyrannosaur fossils collected from the international expedition and discovered the new species. The team later reconstructed the brain of the dinosaur using CT scans of its brain case to glean insights into the new species’ advanced senses.

“The ancestors of T. rex would have looked a whole lot like Timurlengia, a horse-sized hunter with a big brain and keen hearing that would put us to shame,” Brusatte said. “Only after these ancestral tyrannosaurs evolved their clever brains and sharp senses did they grow into the colossal sizes of T. rex. Tyrannosaurs had to get smart before they got big.”

The species’ skull was much smaller than that of T. rex. However, key features of Timurlengia’s skull reveal that its brain and senses were already highly developed, the team says.

Hans Sues holding dinosaur teeth

Hans Sues, Chair, Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution holding a cast (right hand) of a Tyrannosaurus Rex tooth for comparison with an actual tooth of the new tyrannosaur Timurlengia euotica, from the Late Cretaceous Period that was found in the Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan. (Photo by James Di Loreto)

Timurlengia was about the size of a horse and could weigh up to 600 pounds. It had long legs and was likely a fast runner.

The first tyrannosaurs lived during the Jurassic Period, around 170 million years ago, and were only slightly larger than a human. However, by the Late Cretaceous Period—around 100 million years later—tyrannosaurs had evolved into animals like T. rex, which could weigh up to 7 tons.

The new species’ small size some 80 million years after tyrannosaurs first appeared in the fossil record indicates that its huge size developed only toward the end of the group’s long evolutionary history.


Posted: 14 March 2016
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.