Calling all dinosaur fans – the South American cousin of the Velociraptor has been discovered in New Mexico. Dineobellator notohesperus lived alongside the Tyrannosaurus rex in the Late Cretaceous period some 67 million years ago, making it one of the last known surviving raptor species. A feathered predator, Dineobellator only stood at about 1 meter tall (3.5 feet), but thanks to its unique tail, the raptor had incredible agility.
As detailed in Nature’s Scientific Reports, fossils of the new species, a member of the dromaeosaurid family (popularly known as “raptors”), were first uncovered back in 2008. Steven Jasinski, a curator of paleontology and geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, and colleagues found 20 identifiable bones of the new raptor in Cretaceous rocks of the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. As the first significant dromaeosaurid skeleton unearthed in this part of the world, Dineobellator will add to scientists’ understanding of what life was like in the region towards the end of the dinosaur’s reign.
“While dromaeosaurids are better known from places like the northern United States, Canada, and Asia, little is known of the group farther south in North America,” Jasinski said in a statement. Ancestors of Dineobellator are thought to have migrated from Asia to North America, before evolving into multiple lineages of dromaeosaurids, including the one discovered by Jasinski and his team.
Named after the people who currently live in the region where the dinosaur once roamed, Dineobellator notohesperus, meaning “Navajo warrior from the Southwest,” was a swift predator. Although lightly built, features of the raptor’s forelimbs, including enlarged areas of the claws, suggest it could hold on to smaller animals such as birds and lizards, whilst its arms could be strongly flexed to tackle other dinosaurs.
Perhaps one of Dineobellator’s most unique and advantageous characteristics was its rudder-like tail, also seen in top predators such as cheetahs.
“Think of what happens with a cat’s tail as it is running,” Jasinski explained. “While the tail itself remains straight, it is also whipping around constantly as the animal is changing direction. A stiff tail that is highly mobile at its base allows for increased agility and changes in direction and potentially aided Dineobellator in pursuing prey, especially in more open habitats.”
In this Dineobellator’s case, a gouge mark on one of its claws suggests an altercation with another one of its species, or perhaps even a T-rex, the authors speculate. But the raptor carried all this hunting out in style, as small bumps on the surface of its bones imply that Dineobellator bore feathers, similar to those inferred for Velociraptor.
“It was with a lot of searching and a bit of luck that this dinosaur was found weathering out of a small hillside,” Jasinski remarked. “We do so much hiking, and it is easy to overlook something or simply walk on the wrong side of a hill and miss something. We hope that the more we search, the better chance we have of finding more of Dineobellator or the other dinosaurs it lived alongside.”