Tyrannosaurus rex’s oldest ancestor – a very British killing machine

Press release - 04 November 2009

Remains of the oldest-known relative of the world’s most infamous predator have been identified – 100 years after being pulled out of a Gloucestershire reservoir.

A near-complete Proceratosaurus skull in London’s Natural History Museum’s collection has been found to be a 165-million-year-old ancestor of Hollywood’s favourite prehistoric killing machine, Tyrannosaurus rex, according to research published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. The fossil provides crucial clues to the early stages of the lengthy evolutionary history of these fearsome predators.


A team of British and German researchers, including two palaeontologists from London’s Natural History Museum, used computed tomography (CT) techniques to generate a 3D image of the delicate skull remains to study its internal structure in minute detail.


Dinosaur researcher Dr Angela Milner commented, ‘It was quite a surprise when our analysis showed we had the oldest known relative of T. rex. We care for over nine million fossils here at the Museum and this discovery highlights the importance of museum collections in current and future research. Fossils collected a century ago can now be studied again with the benefit of much greater knowledge of dinosaurs from around the world.’


Originally described in 1910 as a new species of Megalosaurus, the fossil was presented to the Museum in 1942. But its links to the most famous dinosaur family of all remained undiscovered until now. The 30 centimetre long skull, which was uncovered during excavations for a reservoir close to Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire, has long attracted attention because of its superb preservation, but it had not been studied in detail.


Dr Oliver Rauhut from the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich said, ‘This is still one of the best-preserved dinosaur skulls found in Europe. It is really surprising that it has received so little attention since its original description.’


Despite its good condition, Scott More-Fay, a palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum explained that some of the bones were still covered with rock and had to be carefully cleaned before the skull could be fully examined. ‘This is a very fragile skull, so removing the rock, especially from around the teeth, was a delicate and time-consuming task that had to be done under a microscope, using very fine tools.’


Dr Oliver Rauhut is excited about the possibilities that techniques such as CT modelling present for discovering and identifying new species. ‘I’m sure that many more tyrannosaurs are still out there to be found. I think we have just scratched the tip of the iceberg so far.’


Notes for editors


  • Rauhut.O,  Milner.A, Moore-Fay.S ,’Cranial osteology and phylogenetic position of the theropod dinosaur Proceratosaurus bradleyi (Woodward, 1910) from the Middle Jurassic of England’,  is published in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, Vol. 158 Issue 1.DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2008.00591.x
  • Tyrannosaurus rex lived around 67 to 65 million years ago, at the end of the dinosaur era, in the Cretaceous Period and is a member of a larger group, called Tyrannosauroidea, after its most famous member.
  • Until recently, all known members of the Tyrannosauroidea were gigantic predators from the Late Cretaceous, like T. rex itself, but the origin and early history of the group was almost unknown.
  • The skull of Proceratosaurus was presented to the Natural History Museum, London by F L Bradley in 1942. Proceratosaurus is about 100 million years older and much smaller than its infamous eight-tonne T. rex descendent but its teeth, jaws and braincase all closely resemble the structures found in the gigantic predator.
  •  The skull was scanned at the CT facility in Austin, Texas. The Natural History Museum has since set up its own state-of-the-art CT facility for studying a wide range of natural objects, including fossils, meteorites, animal mummies, fruits and seeds.
  • Dr Oliver Rauhut holds dual appointments in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich and the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology.
  • The Natural History Museum Palaeontology Department’s Research Fund and the European Community SYNTHESYS Project (www.synthesys.info) funded this research.
  • The Natural History Museum is a world-leading science research centre. In the new Darwin Centre, visitors can discover the collections and watch scientists as they prepare, mount and study some of the Museum's millions of insect and plant specimens to understand the major threats facing our planet today. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.