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Dracoraptor by Robert Nicholls.

Paleo Profile: The Dragon Thief

The Triassic is often called the “dawn of the dinosaurs.” It’s an evocative image – a little dinosaur proudly strutting out onto a landscape to claim the world with tooth and claw – but we’ve got the timing wrong. As paleontologist Kevin Padian and others have made clear, dinosaurs were around during the Triassic but they were largely meek, marginal creatures. They didn’t rule anything. It took a mass extinction to remove much of the crocodile-line competition around 200 million years ago. The Jurassic was the true Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and a little carnivore from the cliffs of Wales offers a small window into that time.

Named Dracoraptor by David Martill and coauthors, the dinosaur was exposed by a cliff collapse that also threatened to destroy the remaining bones. The intact pieces were “‘rescue’ collected” by amateurs Nick and Rob Hanigan, and thankfully they donated the fossil to the Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum of Wales.

Dracoraptor was a slender little thing, not much different from previously-described theropod dinosaurs from the Triassic such as Tawa and Daemonosaurus. But the critical difference is a matter of time. For reasons that remain a mystery to us, dinosaurs made it through the end-Triassic extinction virtually unscathed while the diverse and successful crocodile cousins – the pseudosuchians – were almost entirely stripped from the planet, leaving only the group that would eventually spawn crocodiles as we know them now. In short, dinosaurs got lucky. Dracoraptor embodies this dinosaurian hope that played out during the Jurassic and onward. The svelte predator couldn’t have conceived of it, but its kind would soon take over the terrestrial realm. It was the dragon of the dawn.

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The known elements of Dracoraptor. From Martill et al., 2016.

Fossil Facts

Name: Dracoraptor hanigani

Meaning: Dracoraptor, meaning “dragon thief”, is a reference to the mythical Dragon of Wales, while hanigani honors Nick and Rob Hanigan who discovered the skeleton.

Age: Around 200 million years old.

Where in the world?: Near Cardiff, south Wales.

What sort of critter?: A theropod dinosaur related to Tawa and Daemonosaurus.

Size: Approximately seven feet long.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: About 40% of a single skeleton including elements of the skull and body.

Reference: Martill, D., Vidovic, S., Howells, C., Nudds, J. 2016. The oldest Jurassic dinosaur: A basal neotheropod from the Hettangian of Great Britain. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0145713

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