Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Otto, the baby feathered Megalosaur

An image of Otto's beautifully preserved skeleton. It's no wonder that he's considered the most well-preserved theropod in Europe.

If any of you have been reading any of the news articles from yesterday, you will be excited to find that a new dinosaur discovery has finally been announced! One that the scientific community has been waiting for years and years to find. The announcement of the new theropod species Sciurumimus albersdoerferi. You have probably actually seen him before, for about a year now images of this little fella have been seen all over the Internet.

Before he was scientifically described though, the researchers studying him simply called him Otto. Otto was uncovered in the Solnhofen Formation a few years back (the same place we found Archeopteryx and Compsognathus), and was sold to a private collector. However, this collector realized the importance of this little fella, and happily allowed Otto to be studied by scientists (I guess all collectors aren't bad).

Otto is officially the most well preserved theropod fossil yet found in Europe, being over 98% complete, something scientists would normally dream about finding. In fact, a close examination of Otto under UV light has shown that he had feathers, and quite surprisingly, a long bushy tail like a squirrel, hence his genus name meaning "squirrel mimic." Many have been pleased by Otto's discovery, not just because he is so well preserved, but because he rewrites the history books on Dinosaur feather evolution. Unlike all other feathered dinosaurs found so far, a scientific analysis suggests that Otto isn't a member of the Celurosauria, the branch of theropods that all feathered dinosaurs have been found on. He is instead thought to be part of an older branch of theropods, the Megalosaurs.
A close-up of Otto's curious little skull.
I've been wondering whether or not the bone beneath his jaw is actually part of him or another animal, such as a "last meal." If anyone has an answer I would be grateful if you could tell me.

Megalosaurs were mostly 20-25 ft predatory Tenurans that lived during the Jurassic, and apparently died out due to competition with more successful theropods like members of the Carnosauria. However, during their time on earth they were very powerful predators, and one species called Torvosaurus apparently reached and even exceeded the size of some specimens of T-rex.

Now Otto isn't an adult megalosaur (if he was, he'd definitely be the smallest one we know of), he is only a baby, possibly only a few hours out of the egg and roughly 28 inches from nose to tail, and on par with Scipionyx for the youngest theropod we know of, but he is monumental in the fact he is the most well preserved megalosaur ever found. Almost all megalosaurs that have been found are known from only fragmentary remains, which is one reason why Otto is such a monumental find. We have already learned so much from his remains, including finally solving the riddle of how many fingers megalosaurs had, and roughly how long the tail was.

But the monumental find is, of course, the feathers. Otto provides the first piece of evidence of feathers on another theropod branch outside the coelurosaurs. (If, of course, Concaventator's bumps aren't quill knobs and Yutyrannus is 100% a tyrannosauroid) Being a megalosaur, the origins of feathers in theropods would have to be pushed back to the base of the Tenurans at least, and with fluffy ornithischians like Tianyulong and Psittacosaurus, it really does seem like all dinosaurs have a fluffy ancestry. So we may need to start portraying our more primitive giant theropods like Allosaurus, Giganotosaurus, and more primitive forms like Dilophosaurus and Crylophosaurus with fluffy coats.

Before the discovery of Otto, Juravenator was
the most well preserved Theropod in Europe,
 and is considered a Coelurosaur.
I've gotten a lot of sass with this subject, as I've heard a number of people complain that we are lacking the evidence of making such assumptions. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We don't have any skin impressions of primitive and basal dinosaurs from the early Jurassic and Triassic, and of what we do have does seem to suggest the idea of feathers. One fossil of a Dilophosaurus(?) that was sitting down in a resting position have shown evidence of fibers around the stomach, legs, and pelvice, suggesting possible filament-like feathers. However, this impression has been greatly criticized, and many think that these traces might simply be plant debris that was dragged along by the dinosaur. The discovery of Otto might help people lean towards the fluffy side of things.

So with the discovery of Sciurumimus we're going to have to start drawing some fuzzy Allosaurus, and I do hope that in the new Jurassic Park expected to come out in 2015 we'll have some fuzzy dinosaurs. The fossil record right now is screaming at us "DINOSAURS ARE FLUFFY, STOP ANIMATING NAKED T-REXES!" that we should really start listening. I've also gotten some sass as above with all dinosaur having a feathers about how if we start animating our dinosaur as fuzzy, they'll become less scary and less apealing to audiences and the general public in things like horror films. Well, I swear that if you were being attacked by a lion, you wouldn't be standing there thinking "Awwwww, it's so fluffy!"

So there you have it, if anybody has any more questions feel free to ask me. I'm going to make a post soon about some Dinosaur decendents I found in the tree in front of my house, and one of which was watching me through my window as I typed this article. I'm not giving away what they are, but I'll tell you they're very cute, and very fast.

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