Life Science Reaper of death: T-Rex’s older, gnarlier cousin discovered

Reaper of death: T-Rex’s older, gnarlier cousin discovered

There's not any modelling of the 'reaper of death', but it's likely it looked a lot like its cousin, T-Rex, only a bit smaller. Photo: Getty
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If you thought Tyrannosaurus Rex was terrifying, wait until you meet its newly discovered cousin – the reaper of death.

Standing at two and a half metres tall, eight metres long and with razor-sharp seven centimetre-long teeth, the reaper was not a dinosaur you’d want to meet in a dark alleyway.

It’s estimated to be 79.5 million years old, making it the oldest known tyrannosaur discovered in the northern end of North America.

More eloquently named Thanatotheristes degrootorum, (Thanatos for short) its bones were first discovered in 2010 by couple John and Sandra De Groot, who were taking a leisurely stroll along the banks of the Bow River in Alberta, Canada, when they happened across fragments of the monster’s skull and jaw.

Research puts it walking the Earth some 12 million years before the T-Rex.

Palaeontologist John Long from Flinders University said it was always exciting when a new dinosaur species was discovered – and especially interesting when they were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“T-Rex is such an identifiable dinosaur. It’s the one everyone relates to,” Professor Long told The New Daily.

And this discovery shows there’s still a lot more to find out about the king of the dinosaurs and his family, Professor Long said.

Old things take a long time

It was a good 10 years from the time the De Groots discovered the skull, to the publishing of the study that identifies the reaper last month.

So what’s the hold up?

Professor Long told The New Daily this sort of timeline between discovering the bones and discovering the species was actually quite normal.

In this case, the bones were sitting in the depths of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, categorised as part of the tyrannosaur family.

It wasn’t until palaeontology doctoral student Jared Voris was combing through the collections for this thesis that he happened across the reaper’s remnants.

Mr Voris, who is just 25 years old, grabbed a team and studied the skull – this is when they realised it was a previously undiscovered species.

Study researchers Darla Zelenitsky, Jared Voris and François Therrien show off the fossils of the reaper of death. Photo: Royal Tyrrell Museum

Professor Long said he had fossils he’d been “sitting on” for 10 years.

The process of identifying bones isn’t always easy or quick, he said.

An external team might need to be brought in to make casts of bones.

Or maybe the remains are wrapped up, and might sit unseen and no one is any the wiser that they’re not actually what they’re labelled as.

Big finds Down Under

Australia is no stranger to dinosaur discoveries.

In the past two decades, there has been a range of discoveries across the country.

Some of the biggest finds have been around the area of Winton, in Queensland, Professor Long told The New Daily.

The Savannasauras was a long-necked herbivore, between 12 and 15 metres long. Its fossils were found in 2005, and it was officially “discovered” six years later.

Dr Stephen Poropat
Dr Stephen Poropat with five giant back bones from Savannasaurus elliottorum.

Before that, in the same area, was Wintonotitan (a giraffe-like beast) and a Diamantinasaurus (more like a hippo, according to experts), both fairly sizeable herbivores.

Around the same time, the area unearthed the Australovenator, or Banjo, a meat-eating predator that probably preyed heavily on the aforementioned herbivores.

Lightning Ridge in New South Wales is another prehistoric hot spot – a herd of Fostoria were found in an opal mine in May last year.

What’s particularly special about fossils found in this area is that they’re preserved in opal – Australia is the only place in the world where opalised dinosaur fossils are found.

And they’re just as pretty as they sound, Professor Long said.

History lessons

While it’s fun to discover more about the creatures that roamed the planet millions of years before humans, there’s also a lot that palaeontologists can learn about the future, too.

By studying patterns in rocks and organics, Professor Long said, a trained eye can identify changes in atmosphere and sea levels over time.

“We see how important that is that these levels build up slowly in nature,” he told The New Daily.

“When dinosaurs reached their peak, carbon dioxide levels and greenhouse gases were five times what they are today, but that took 100 million years to build up. Slowly, it was part of a natural environment.

“But now we see that those levels are skyrocketing.

“The biggest lesson from palaeontology is it tells us where we’ve come from as a species and where we’re heading and how we can adapt.”

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