Dinosaurs are generally separated into one of two groups: the "lizard-hipped" Saurischia, which includes theropods (like Tyrannosaurus rex and all birds) and Sauropodomorphs; or the "bird-hipped" Ornithischia, which counts stegosaurus, triceratops and the duck-billed hadrosaurs among its members.
Using a comprehensive dataset to analyse more than 450 anatomical characteristics of early dinosaurs, they were able to place the creature in the dinosaur family tree.
Originally discovered in southern Chile and first described in 2015, Chilesaurus initially puzzled scientists because it possessed an unusual array of physical characteristics which made it hard to place on the dinosaur family tree. "Its weird mix of features places it in a key position in dinosaur evolution and helps to show how some of the really big splits between the major groups might have come about".
Is Chilesaurus a dinosaur missing link?
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While Chilesaurus has broad, flat teeth, useful for grinding plant matter, as well as bird-like hip bones, the dinosaur doesn't have the common Ornithischia beak and boasts a body much like a Velociraptor.
Baron and his team suggest that the freaky Chilesaurus might be a very early member of the Ornithischia, a "bird-hipped" group.
"Chilesaurus nearly looks like it was stitched together from different animals, which is why it baffled everybody", Matthew Baron, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release. "In the 130 years since the ornithischia group was first recognized, we have never had any concept of how the first ones could have looked until now".
The Chilesaurus, which has been nicknamed the "Frankenstein dinosaur" due to it appearing as though it were patched together from other, unrelated dinosaur species, has now been labeled a transitional species that helps to bridge the gap between herbivorous dinosaurs and the more iconic meat-eaters like the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Said Baron: "Before this, there were no transitional specimens - we didn't know what order these characteristics evolved in...." "This shows that in bird-hipped dinosaurs, the gut evolved first, and the jaws evolved later".
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The results put Chilesaurus in with the plant-eating ornithischians, not the meat-eating theropods. "It is a flawless half-and-half mix", Baron reckons.
"There was a split in the dinosaur family tree, and the two branches took different evolutionary directions", says one of the team, Matthew Baron from the University of Cambridge. It seems that this happened because of a change in the diet.
"It seems it became more advantageous for some of the meat-eating dinosaurs to start eating plants, possibly even out of necessity", Barrett said, per Newsweek.
The new research suggests that the family tree might be even more complicated than previously thought.
"Dinosaurs really are the best model set of organisms that we have for looking at larger questions about life on earth because they're very well studied", Baron said.
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