Scientists find elephant-sized creature that lived with dinosaurs

Dinosaurs weren't the only colossal creatures roaming Earth 200 million years ago. A new fossil discovery suggests they shared the planet with a plant-eating beast that resembled a rhinoceros with a turtle's beak.

Scientists say they have unearthed fossils belonging to an elephant-sized reptile that lived alongside dinosaurs in Eastern Europe more than 200 million years ago.

The find, published in the journal Science on Thursday, means dinosaurs weren't the only giants that existed during the Triassic Period, as previously believed. 

Researchers discovered the fossilized bones of the four-legged creature, named Lisowicia bojani, at the village of Lisowice in southern Poland.

"Such an important new species is a once in a lifetime discovery," said Tomasz Sulej of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who worked on the study. 

Lisowicia bojani was a reptile with a turtle-like beak and an elephant-sized body

The team of scientists from Poland and Sweden said Lisowicia had a body like a giant rhinoceros and was equipped with a turtle-like beak for munching plants.

They identified it as a previously unknown species of dicynodont — a herbivorous mammal-like reptile that could range in size from a small rat to an ox. Lisowicia, weighing 10 tons and stretching 4.5 meters (15 feet) in length, would have been about 40 percent larger than any previously identified dicynodont. 

"The discovery of Lisowicia changes our ideas about the latest history of dicynodonts," Sulej said. "It also raises far more questions about what really makes them and dinosaurs so large."

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Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

Heavy head

Because the Tyrannosaurus Rex's skull is too heavy for its 12-meter-long body, it is shown separately in a display case. A 3D printer created a lightweight copy to top the rest of the skeleton. About 98 percent of the 1.5-meter-long skull has been preserved, making it the best-preserved T-Rex skull known to date.

Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

Express delivery from the US

The team at Berlin's Museum of Natural History had only about a month to put together the disassembled skeleton. The T-Rex, which was found in the US state of Montana, was prepared for transport in Pennsylvania. It was then shipped, box by box, across the Atlantic to Berlin.

Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

Celebrity dinosaur

Although it's been extinct for about 65 million years, the Tyrannosaurus Rex is a pop culture mainstay. It starred for example as a ferocious predator in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park." Despite its Hollywood characterization, researchers now believe the T-Rex was more of a scavenger than a predator.

Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

The patron behind the loan

As a child, the Dane Niels Nielsen was fascinated by dinosaurs. He became a successful London investment banker - and his fortune allowed him to acquire one of the best-preserved T-Rex skeletons ever discovered when it came on the market. He named it after his son, Tristan.

Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

Spellbinding sauropod

For three years, Tristan the T-Rex will be on display alongside his fellow dinosaurs in Berlin. One is a Brachiosaurus brancai, also from the sauropod genus. When they were offered the loan, curators at the Museum of Natural History had to spring into action to arrange for its prompt exhibition and an accompanying research project. Now Berlin can boast a snappy new attraction.

Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

Part of the family

Tristan is expected to draw scores of new visitors to Berlin's Museum for Natural History - and its celebrity may well rub off on the other dinosaurs there, too. The Dysalotosaurus is one of them. Like the T-Rex, the 5-meter-long Dysalotosaurus wasn't a picky eater. Its teeth suggest that the juveniles, at least, were omnivores.

Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

Paleontological pioneer

Berlin has a long history of dinosaur hunting. In the early 20th century, the Museum of Natural History commissioned an expedition to Tendaguru Hill, in what is today Tanzania. At the time, it was the world's most successful dinosaur fossil excavation. About 250 tons of fossils were sent to Berlin. Many are still in the museum's cellar, and are still being studied by researchers.

Tristan, the King of the dinosaurs

A Berlin attraction

Berlin's Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1889, is Germany's largest natural-history research museum. The focus of the exhibition is "evolution in action." Alongside the world's largest dinosaur skeleton, the exhibits include everything from tiny insects to fish. The museum is a real crowd-puller, drawing up to half a million visitors a year.

Mammal cousin

Dicynodonts belonged to the same evolutionary branch as mammals, despite their reptile origins. They managed to survive the mass extinction known as The Great Dying around 250 million years ago that killed up to 90 percent of Earth's species. But they were thought to have died out before the late Triassic era (between about 240 million and 201 million years ago) when dinosaurs appeared.

But an analysis of Lisowicia bone specimens showed they actually survived until around 210-205 million years ago — around the time when dinosaurs had become the dominant land creature, growing to huge sizes while early mammals retreated.

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"The late Triassic Period wasn't just the time of the rise of dinosaurs, it was also the time when the last dicynodonts decided to compete with dinosaurs. Finally, dinosaurs won this evolutionary competition," said Sulej.

Christian Kammerer, a dicynodont specialist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences who wasn't involved in the study, called it "very intriguing and important."

"Large dicynodonts have been known before in both the Permian and the Triassic, but never at this scale," he said.

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Tomorrow Today | 03.01.2016

X-raying a dinosaur skull

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