Paleontologists have discovered a species of long-snouted dinosaur in southern China, spurring the creation of a new branch of the tyrannosaur family tree.
Nicknamed Pinocchio rex for its signature elongated snout, researchers whose work was published in the journal Nature Communications say the large cousin to Tyrannosaurus rex was likely a fearsome carnivore that roamed throughout Asia in the late Cretaceous period, or until about 66 million years ago.
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The predator, which has been assigned the formal name of Qianzhousaurus sinensis, had distinctive skull features that differentiate it from its more well-known kin T. rex. Aside from its snout, the dinosaur had long, narrow teeth, while T. rex had thick teeth and powerful, deep-set jaws.
"This is a different breed of tyrannosaur. It has the familiar toothy grin of T. rex, but its snout was much longer and it had a row of horns on its nose," says Steve Brusatte, professor at the University of Edinburgh's school of geosciences in Scotland and one of the authors of the study.
"It might have looked a little comical, but it would have been as deadly as any other tyrannosaur, and maybe even a little faster and stealthier."
The find has confirmed a long-held suspicion among paleontologists that long-snouted tyrannosaurs existed.
Until now, the theory was only circumstantial, supported by two separate finds of fossilized tyrannosaur skulls with seemingly elongated snouts. Researchers were uncertain, however, if the skulls simply belonged to juvenile tyrannosaurs that would have eventually developed the telltale thick, robust skull most often associated with the family.
The Pinocchio rex fossil was reportedly unearthed largely intact and well-preserved. While the animal would have cohabited certain environments with other species of tyrannosaur, it was larger than most and probably hunted different prey, researchers say.
Researchers expect more dinosaurs to be added to the tyrannosaur family tree as more fossils are unearthed throughout Asia.