It’s big. It’s scary. It’s called Pinocchio rex.

The image shows two Qianzhousaurus individuals hunting. The one in the foreground is chasing a small feathered dinosaur called Nankangia and the one in the background is eating a lizard. Fossils of these three species are known from the ca. 72-66 million-year-old site in Ganzhou, China, where Qianzhousaurus was found. (Credit: Chuang Zhao
An artist’s rendering of two Pinocchio rex hunting. (Chuang Zhao)

For years, scientists had thought it was out there — an ancient predator with a beak-like snout. Fossils of two Tyrannosaurus rex with elongated heads had surfaced in Mongolia, but they were just juveniles. No one knew whether they represented a new species of dinosaur, or were just a pair of T. rex that had died during an awkward teen phase.

On Wednesday, Nature Communications published an article that claimed to put doubts to rest. According to scientists who analyzed remains discovered near Ganzhou, a city in southern China, another species of tyrannosaur once hulked across the planet. The remarkably-preserved specimen, twice the size of Mongolia’s juvenile dinosaurs, shows that this subspecies was fearsome, with a mouth full of long, narrow teeth. Prowling across Asia 66 million years ago, it had an elongated skull and thick, powerful jaws — though not quite as powerful as the better-known T. rex.

The name: Pinocchio rex.

“This is a different breed of tyrannosaur,” said the article’s co-author, Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh. “It has the familiar toothy grin of T. rex, but its snout was much longer and it had a row of horns on its nose. It might have looked a little comical, but it would have been as deadly as any other tyrannosaur, and maybe even a little faster and stealthier.”

P. rex was smaller than T. rex. It likely weighed around one ton, and was about 30 feet in length, Brusatte told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “It’s no little runt,” he said. “It would have been bad news to run into it.”

An image of the holotype skull of Qianzhousaurus sinensis. (Courtesy of Steve Brusatte.)
An image of the holotype skull of Qianzhousaurus sinensis. (Courtesy of Steve Brusatte.)

Formally known as Qianzhousaurus sinensis, P. rex lived alongside the fabled T. rex, a beast that dominates dinosaur pop culture. It appears the creatures lived together in peace, scientists say, and didn’t hunt the same prey, coexisting much in the same way cheetahs and lions do in the savanna. “Both were predators,” Brusatte said, “but they were slightly different predators. … We’re learning more and more about Asian dinosaurs, and here you have two tyrannosauruses filling the top predator roles on the first and second tiers.”

This may only be the beginning of many long-snouted dino discoveries. “Researchers have created a new branch of the tyrannosaur family for specimens with long snouts, and they expect more new dinosaurs to be added to the group,” the university’s press release said. The longer snout, Brusatte surmised, allowed the beast to have a quicker bite and evinced “the type of subtle differences between a lion and cheetah.”

The discovery provides one of the clearest pictures of the time immediately before a giant asteroid struck the planet, which likely caused the dinosaurs’ extinction. “It was one of the last surviving dinosaurs, and it witnessed the asteroid impact,” Brusatte explained. “We’re just today learning what the world looked right before the asteroid hit, and discoveries in China are getting us to a different part of the world.”

And in that world, there’s little doubt P. rex was a primo predator. “The new discovery is very important,” explains co-author Junchang Lu of the Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences. “Along with [the juveniles] from Mongolia, it shows that the long-snouted tyrannosaurids were widely distributed in Asia. Although we are only starting to learn about them, the long-snouted tyrannosaurs were apparently one of the main groups of predatory dinosaurs in Asia.”

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Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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