T-rex’s ‘bizarre’ vegetarian cousin puzzles scientists

The discovery of Chilesaurus showed that a meat-free diet was acquired much earlier than thought.

An artist's depiction shows the Chilesaurus diegosuarezi in this undated handout illustration provided by the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, Alabama on April 27, 2015. Gabriel Lio/University of Birmingham/Handout via Reuters
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PARIS // Tyrannosaurus rex, one of history’s most dreaded carnivores, had an odd-looking vegetarian cousin with a tiny head, long neck and stubby fingers.

Scientists admitted on Monday its anatomy had them puzzled.

Chilesaurus diegosuarezi had a bird-like beak with leaf-shaped teeth, evidence that it feasted on plants, but with hind leg features similar to theropod dinosaurs, the group into which it was slotted with notorious killers like T-rex, Velociraptor and the horned Carnotaurus.

“Chilesaurus constitutes one of the most bizarre dinosaurs ever found,” Fernando Novas of Argentina’s Natural History Museum in Buenos Aires said of a study published in the journal Nature which he co-authored.

“At the beginning, I was convinced that we had collected three different dinosaurs, but when the most complete skeleton was prepared, it [became] evident that all the elements pertained to a single dinosaur species.”

The bizarre creature was named after the South American country where its fossilised remains were found, and the seven-year old boy, Diego Suarez, who discovered the first bones in 2004 while exploring the Andes mountains with his geologist parents.

About a dozen Chilesaurus specimens have since been dug up.

Theropods like T-rex tended to have relatively short necks, big heads and strong, muscled hind legs larger than their arms, vicious claws and jaws brimming with razor-sharp teeth.

But Chilesaurus cuts an altogether less threatening figure.

“The proportionally small skull of Chilesaurus, with the presence of a horn beak at the tip of the snout and ... leaf-shaped teeth, reveal that Chilesaurus was a strict plant eater,” Mr Novas said.

Most skeletons discovered so far were the size of a turkey, but isolated bones have revealed that Chilesaurus could grow to about three metres in length.

Until now, herbivorous theropods were known only in close dinosaur relatives of modern-day birds, the team said. Yet the discovery of Chilesaurus showed that a meat-free diet was acquired much earlier than thought.

Chilesaurus lived at the end of the Jurassic period, some 145 million years ago – long before T-rex which ruled the plate at the end of the Cretaceous era some 70-65 million years ago.

* Agence Frane-Presse