Top Story: August 31, 2010

Velociraptor’s Stocky Cousin

Balaur

Move over Velociraptor, there’s a new meat-eating dinosaur in town!  And even though it’s related to you, it can probably kick your butt. From Ed Yong in Discover:

… if Velociraptor became iconic, then its close relative Balaur should be doubly so; this newly discovered dinosaur had two sickle-shaped claws on each foot. And unlike the lithe, agile form of its cousin, Balaur was built for strength, with the build of a kickboxer rather than a sprinter.

As published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Balaur bondoc, which means “stocky dragon” in Romanian, is the first predatory dinosaur discovered in Europe from the Late Cretaceous period, about 65 million years ago.

According to one of the authors, Zoltán Csiki of the University of Bucharest, “Balaur is the size of an oversized turkey and unlike what we know of the large predators from other parts of the world at the same time period, like Tyrannosaurus or Carnotaurus.”

Balaur ’s oddball status actually fits its time and place. From the New York Times:

Before the end of the Cretaceous, Europe was an archipelago of islands in higher seas. Previous fossil discoveries indicated that life there followed the pattern known as the “island effect.” Animals in isolation, including plant-eating dinosaurs, often evolved as smaller, more primitive versions of their continental relatives.

In this case, Balaur was both stockier and differently structured than its mainland raptor relatives.

(Visitors to the Academy are familiar with the “island effect” which can be seen in our Islands of Evolution exhibit that displays life in the Galapagos and Madagascar. Science in Action also talks about unusual island life in “Extreme Islands.”)

Only part of the Balaur skeleton has been found, including leg, hip, backbone, arm, hand, rib, and tail bones. But that’s enough to see its extraordinary features—20 in all—including a secondarily evolved functional big toe with a large claw that can be hyper-extended, presumably used to slash prey.

Balaur is a new breed of predatory dinosaur, very different from anything we have ever known,” says Stephen Brusatte, a graduate student at Columbia University. “Its anatomy shows that it probably hunted in a different way than its less stocky relatives. Compared to Velociraptor… it might have been able to take down larger animals than itself, as many carnivores do today.”

Balaur – a bigger, badder Velociraptor-type dinosaur?  How evolutionary!

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