Scientists last week showed off a newly discovered dinosaur that proves giants similar to Tyrannosaurus rex were around 10 million years earlier than previously believed.
A full skeletal replica of the carnivore — the equivalent of the great-uncle of the T. rex — went on display Wednesday at the Natural History Museum of Utah alongside a 3-D model of its head and a large painted mural of the dinosaur roaming a shoreline.
It was the public’s first glimpse of the new species, which researchers named Lythronax argestes (LY-throw-nax ar-GES-tees).
The dinosaur’s fossils were found in 2009 in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. A team of paleontologists — those are scientists who study prehistoric times — spent four years digging up the bones and traveling the world to confirm they were from a new species.
Paleontologists believe the dinosaur lived 80 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period on a landmass in the flooded central part of North America. It probably was a bit smaller than T. rex but was otherwise similar, said Mark Loewen, a Utah paleontologist who wrote an article about the discovery. It was 24 feet long and 8 feet tall at the hip, and was covered in scales and feathers, Loewen said. Asked what the carnivorous dinosaur ate, Loewen responded: “Whatever it wants.”
Loewen added: “That skull is designed for grabbing something, shaking it to death and tearing it apart.”
The discovery offers valuable new insight into the evolution of the ferocious tyrannosaurs that have been made famous in movies and that have awed children and adults alike, said Thomas Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland.
“This shows that these big, banana-tooth bruisers go back to the very first days of the giant tyrant dinosaurs,” Holtz said. “This one is the first example of these kind of dinosaurs being the ruler of the land.”
The fossils were found in a rock formation that has also produced the oldest-known triceratops, named Diabloceratops, and other dome-headed and armored dinosaurs.
There are about 1 million acres of cretaceous rocks — they contain chalk — that could be holding other new species of dinosaurs, said Alan Titus, the paleontologist who oversees the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Only about 10 percent of the rock formation has been scoured, he said. Twelve other new dinosaurs found there are waiting to be named.
“We are just getting started,” Titus said. “We have a really big sandbox to play in.”