The oldest therizinosaur fossils found to date have been identified in Britain using machine learning models to analyze mystery teeth. The toothy remains were found in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset, and are the first time therizinosaurs have been identified from fossils found in the UK.
The findings follow an analysis of individual teeth using machine learning models that had been trained with the measurements of thousands of teeth from known dinosaur species. The models were then tasked with identifying 3D models of mystery teeth created using computed tomography (CT) scanning, which was a more practical and accurate approach than measuring them by hand.
Doing so revealed that among the teeth were the gnashers of troodontids and therizinosaurs, a first for British fossils and marking the oldest known fossils for these dinosaurs anywhere in the world. Among them were others belonging to the maniraptorans, a group of dinosaurs that included Velociraptor.
Maniraptorans are known to have evolved during the Mid-Jurassic, but scarce findings mean there are gaps in our knowledge of their emergence and range. This latest research pushes back the origins of some of their members by around 30 million years and tells us they spread across the globe sooner than previously thought.
“The use of machine learning in vertebrate palaeontology is still in its infancy, although its usage is growing,” said Simon Wills, a PhD student at the Natural History Museum who led the research, in a statement emailed to IFLScience.
“The main drawback is the need to have a comprehensive training dataset for the models to learn from. In our study we are fortunate that there is already a relatively large dataset of dinosaur tooth measurements available that we could use to train the models.”
Prehistoric Planet fans will remember Ole’ Salad Scoops from the landmark series back in 2022, showcasing these herbivorous dinosaurs distinctive scissor-like claw bones. They look pretty sinister in Jurassic World Dominion, but it’s thought they were more useful for clawing at vegetation rather than slicing enemies.
We knew they were scooping greenery back in the Late Cretaceous, but this fossil first teaches us new things about their range and emergence, as well as providing broader insights about the maniraptorans as a group.
“Previous research had suggested that the maniraptorans were around in the Middle Jurassic, but the actual fossil evidence was patchy and disputed,” Wills continued.
“Along with fossils found elsewhere, this research suggests the group had already achieved a global distribution by this time. The teeth we analysed include what are currently the only troodontid and therizinosaur fossils ever recorded from the UK and are the oldest evidence of these dinosaurs anywhere in the world.”
The study is published in the journal Papers in Palaeontology.