Jasinski’s findings are based on a skull fragment discovered in New Mexico’s Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness more than 15 years ago. Paleontologists used to believe that the fossil belonged to another member of the Dromaeosaurid family (a group that includes Jurassic Park’s Utahraptors) called Saurornitholestes langstoni.
But careful examination of the skull revealed an unusually large olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that processes smell. Other odd qualities of the fossil’s brain cavity convinced Jasinski that he was dealing with an entirely new species, which he dubbed Saurornitholestes sullivani to honor his former boss Robert Sullivan, the man who discovered the fossil.
S. sullivani roamed what we now call North America during the late Cretaceous period. The continent was split in two by a giant inland sea and S. sullivani could be found along the sea’s western shores, according to the Penn press release, ranging further south than the S. langstoni and other dinosaurs it resembles.
“This find helps show us … that these dinosaurs to the south are different from those up north. They look differently and act differently.” Jasinski told Motherboard. “It helps us know that many areas that have been skimmed over in the past are more unique than we have thought, and that there are many other new and interesting discoveries still out there left to make.”
The creature’s genus name Saurornitholestes, which means “lizard bird thief,” gives a sense of what the prehistoric predator would have looked like. These animals were lightly built with long legs and jaws lined with teeth, and they are believed to be very distant relatives of today’s birds.
The S. sullivani would have been fairly petite as far as dinosaurs go, standing about 3 feet at the hip and 6 feet from nose to tail. But its powerful olfactory bulb meant it was still something to be feared.
“A keen sense of smell can help make an animal a better predator and scavenger,” Jasinski told Motherboard. “… Its senses would have probably been used to track and hunt prey, making it an excellent and deadly predator.”