It’s been a pretty wild week in the world of paleontology.
In a groundbreaking new study published in this week’s Nature journal, new findings suggest that dinosaurs are actually about 15 million years older than previously thought. The study also suggests dinosaurs’ first place of origin to be much farther north, around the area that is now the U.K. Finally, the study reveals that some meat-eating dinosaurs, including the Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor, were wrongly classified on the dinosaur family tree.
130 years ago, London paleontologist Harry Govier Seeley dedicated his life to comparing the size, shape and arrangement of dinosaur bones. From his studies, he devised the dinosaur family tree, which showed how different dinosaurs were related, how they evolved and when they originated. Seeley’s theories went largely unchallenged for more than a century, but in the past 30 years various discoveries have brought his family tree into question. Now, it seems that meat-eaters need to be moved into the same evolutionary class as the bird-hipped group, which previously only contained plant-eaters such as the Stegosaurus.
“All the major textbooks covering the topic of the evolution of the vertebrates will now need to be re-written if this suggestion survives academic scrutiny and becomes accepted more widely,” said Cambridge Professor David Norman, who supervised the study, to the BBC. “It seems that the dinosaur family tree is being shaken quite firmly. It will be interesting to see what drops from its branches in years to come.”
Some of these new revelations are due to the finding of two crucial dinosaur fossils in England and Scotland. The fossils had previously been dismissed as unimportant, but a closer look revealed them to be near the base of the dinosaur origin tree. This means it’s very likely the dinosaurs originated farther north than previously thought, and about 15 million years earlier. In an interview with the BBC, study lead author Matthew Baron said, “The northern continents certainly played a much bigger role in dinosaur evolution than we previously thought and dinosaurs may have originated in the UK.”
Professor Hans Sues of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., was less convinced. “I am skeptical as none of the other recent analyses obtained similar results—but I keep an open mind,” he said to the BBC.
You can read the full Nature study here and decide for yourself what you think. Also, check out Paste’s feature on “Science’s Ever-Changing Vision of Dinosaurs” to learn how fast (and slow) things can change in the paleontology world.