Oldest dinosaur cousin found

Scientists discovered the oldest dinosaur relative, suggesting that dinosaurs are older than previously thought. While the prevailing theory painted dino cousins as two-legged, small carnivores, the fossil bones of this four-legged, plant eater tells another story of the dinosaur legacy.

Meet Asilisaurus kongwe, a dinosaur relative that lived 10 million years before the oldest known dinosaur. The scrawny dino cousin roamed the earth some 245 million years ago as a vegetarian.

But the dino relative probably co-existed with dinosaurs, suggesting that dinosaurs probably ruled the planet earlier than previously thought.

On a site in Tanzania, scientists discovered fossil bones from 14 Asilisaurus specimens and pieced together one complete creature. It was obvious that the petite animal thrived in this lush habitat during the Triassic period.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

"This new evidence suggests they were really only one of several large and distinct groups of animals that exploded in diversity in the Triassic, including silesaurs, pterosaurs, and several groups of crocodilian relatives," said Sterling Nesbitt, a researcher at the University of Texas in Austin.

Pterosaurs were flying reptiles.

The newly-found creature is a silesaur, which Nesbitt described as a "sister" taxon to the one that gave rise to dinosaurs.

Their evolutionary relationship would be roughly analogous to that between humans and chimps, whose genomes overlap by 99 percent, he said.

The findings squash the theory that the dinosaur's closest relatives were bipedal, carnivorous creatures. In fact, the dino relatives looked nothing like what scientists had expected: The dino cousins walked on all four legs and had beaks.

Unfortunately, the Silesaurids were not fit for survival — they only lasted 45 million years. One researcher called the species a "failed experiment." But that is life.

Well, there's always a chance paleontologist Jack Horner can bring those extinct creatures back to life.

Image top: Marlene Donnelly/ Field Museum

Image bottom: Sterling Nesbitt

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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