Paleontologists from Switzerland and the United Kingdom have discovered a new genus and species of plant-eating dinosaur that lived in what is now Venezuela during the earliest Jurassic, about 200 million years ago.
The newly discovered dinosaur, named Laquintasaura venezuelae, belongs to ornithischians (bird-hipped dinosaurs) – a group which includes species such as Stegosaurus and Iguanodon.
It is the first dinosaur found in the north of South America. Until now paleontologists had assumed that the region was uninhabited by dinosaurs as it was surrounded by large deserts.
Fossil bones of at least four individuals of Laquintasaura venezuelae were recovered from the La Quinta Formation of the Venezuelan Andes.
The species was about the size of a small dog, measuring about 1 m in length, and walked on two hind-legs.
It lived in small groups and was largely herbivorous. Long curved tips on some of its teeth suggest it might have also eaten insects or other small prey.
“Laquintasaura venezuelae lived very soon after the major extinction at the end of the Triassic Period, showing dinosaurs bounced back quickly after this event,” said Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London, UK, who is the first author of a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“It is fascinating and unexpected to see they lived in herds, something we have little evidence of so far in dinosaurs from this time. The fact that it is from completely new and early taxon means we can fill some of the gaps in our understanding of when different groups of dinosaurs evolved.”
“The early history of bird-hipped dinosaurs is still very patchy as so few of them have been found,” said senior author Prof Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra of the University of Zürich.
“This early species plays a key role in our understanding of the evolution, not only of this group, but of dinosaurs in general.”
Paul M. Barrett et al. 2014. A palaeoequatorial ornithischian and new constraints on early dinosaur diversification. Proc. R. Soc. B, vol. 281, no. 1791; doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1147