Scientists have identified a not-too-distant relative of dinosaurs that walked on four legs, had a long neck, and looked a lot like crocodiles. For a long time, paleontologists believed that early dinosaur relatives looked like dinosaurs. But the latest discovery has forced scientists to rethink how the dinosaurs evolved. Findings of the study were described Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Origin of Dinosaur Crocodiles missing link
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Teleocraters had disappeared before the origin of dinosaurs

Remains of the newly identified species Teleocrater rhadinus were first discovered in 1933 in Tanzania. The fossils were stored in the Natural History Museum in London for nearly two decades before noted paleontologist Alan Charig studied them, and named the creature Teleocrater. Charig didn’t have enough fossils to build its complete skeleton.

More fossils were unearthed in Tanzania in 2015 that helped an international team of scientists study the 245-million-year-old species. Alan Charig died in 1997, but his name has been added to the list of the paper’s authors, thanks to the prior work he had done on the species. Sterling Nesbitt said in a statement that the new species was a “missing link” in dinosaur evolution.

Teleocrater rhadinus fossils show that many features previously believed to characterize dinosaurs had evolved much earlier. It was stout and muscular, walked on four legs, and its bones had some markings found only in dinosaurs. Its skull has a depression similar to dinosaurs. Its hip muscles would attach to the thigh bones in the same way as birds. It measured between 6-10 feet in length, including the tail and neck. The creature weighed between 20 and 65 pounds, estimate paleontologists.

The Teleocrater roamed on Earth 245 million years ago, about 5-10 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared. These animals had already gone extinct before the first dinosaur came into existence.

The missing link between dinosaurs and crocodiles

Teleocraters were not the direct relatives of dinosaurs. The Teleocrater rhadinus, dinosaurs, crocodiles, and birds were all parts of the “archosaurs” group.

About 250 million years ago, the archosaurs split into two groups. The first one evolved into crocodiles while the second group evolved into dinosaurs and birds. The Teleocrater comes in the second group, but it also had many characteristics of the first group as it had emerged soon after the split. That’s why paleontologists are excited about the new species.

Ken Angielczyk, the co-author of the study, said the Teleocrater had “unexpectedly crocodile-like features” that have forced scientists to reassess what we know about the early stages of dinosaur evolution. It’s a missing link between dinosaurs and the common ancestor the dinos shared with crocodiles.

Understanding the new species is important because dinosaurs were among the most successful animals ever. They roamed the Earth for more than 150 million years. By comparison, humans have been around for only 200,000 years. Birds, the dinosaur descendants, are still alive.

Need to reassess the dinosaur classification system

The identification of Teleocrater rhadinus comes just weeks after a group of scientists challenged the current theory of dinosaur evolution. Cambridge University paleontologist Matthew Baron said last month that dinosaurs might have emerged more than 242 million years ago, contradicting the existing belief that these giants came into existence 232 million years ago. Baron added that the first dinos originated in what is the modern United Kingdom rather than in South America as previously believed.

The current dinosaur classification system has been in place since 1888, when it was developed by Harry Govier Seely. Baron’s study claims the first dinosaurs walked on two legs, and used grasping hands.