- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

NEW YORK — Digging near Chinese badlands that appeared in the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” scientists have found their own hidden dragon: the oldest known tyrannosaur, a primitive ancestor of the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex.

The two skeletons they unearthed shed light on the lineage that produced T. rex, revealing a creature that lived about 160 million years ago. That was more than 90 million years before T. rex arrived.

A two-legged meat-eater with a puzzling crest on its head, the beast was far smaller than its celebrity descendant, measuring about 10 feet from its snout to the tip of its tail and standing about 3 feet tall at the hip. It also sported relatively long, three-fingered arms, rather than the two-fingered stubby arms T. rex had. Scientists suspect it had feathers because related dinosaurs did.

The discovery is reported in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

The big surprise, said study co-author James Clark of George Washington University, was the finding of a narrow, delicate, largely hollow crest on its head. Although other dinosaurs have had similar features, this one was unusually large and elaborate for a two-legged meat-eater, Mr. Clark and co-authors wrote.

Nobody knows the purpose of the crest, but it was probably some kind of display to other members of its species, said Mr. Clark, co-leader of 2002 expedition that found the beast.

The researchers named the creature Guanlong wucaii, from the Chinese words for “crown” and “dragon,” referring to the crest, and for “five colors,” from the multihued badlands of the Wucaiwan area where the creature was found.

The specimens were found among fossils of three other carnivorous dinosaurs trapped in mud of the middle-Jurassic era in the far western reaches of the Gobi Desert, near the old Silk Road in western China.

Because it preserves anatomical features from its ancestors that were lost in T. rex and other tyrannosaurs, the primitive beast helps scientists understand where tyrannosaurs fit in the evolutionary tree, said Thomas Holtz Jr. of the University of Maryland, who was not involved in the discovery.

“This is the best look so far at the ancestral condition from which the tyrant dinosaurs, T. rex and company, evolved,” he said.

Along with some other finds, the creature helps illustrate the sequence of anatomical changes that occurred along the way to the later, more specialized tyrannosaurs, said Philip Currie of the University of Alberta in Canada.

Ken Carpenter, curator of lower vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, said he tentatively accepts the creature as a tyrannosaur but isn’t convinced of its age. It could be much younger, he said. Mr. Clark said other data, not yet published, support the proposed age of 160 million years.

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