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Welsh 'dragon thief' is oldest known Jurassic dinosaur

An unusual fossil find in south Wales has led to the discovery of a new dinosaur species. Dracoraptor hanigani is the earliest known dinosaur from the Jurassic Period and the first Jurassic dinosaur fossil ever found in Wales.

A rare specimen

Thought to be around 200 million years old, the Dracoraptor remains were found at the foot of a cliff at Lavernock Point in South Wales by brothers Nick Hanigan and Rob Hanigan in 2014.

The dinosaur belongs to the theropod group of two-legged meat-eaters that included Tyrannosaurus rex. Relatively few theropod fossils from this time period have been found, and most are fragments rather than substantial parts of skeletons. This leaves a gap in knowledge at a time when theropods are thought to have rapidly diversified.

The new Dracoraptor find includes around 40 per cent of the animal's skeleton, including its skull, claws, teeth and foot bones.

'This animal was small, slim and agile,' says Dr Dave Martill, co-author of Dracoraptor's first scientific description. 'It was probably only around 70 centimetres tall and two metres long - the size of a leopard or a cheetah maybe. It also had a long tail to help it balance.'

Naming the dragon

The dinosaur was described this month in the journal PLOS ONE by Dr Martill and Steve Vidovic of the University of Portsmouth, along with colleagues from the National Museum Wales and the University of Manchester.

The new species was named after the Hanigan brothers, who donated the fossil to the National Museum of Wales. They also got to choose its genus name - Dracoraptor. ‘Draco’ is Latin for dragon, referencing the dragon in the Welsh flag. It’s thought that Dracoraptor would have used its small serrated teeth to scavenge meat, hence the addition of ‘raptor’, meaning ‘thief’. 

Like other theropods, Dracoraptor hanigani had serrated teeth, perfect for tearing flesh © PLOS ONE, licensed under CC BY 4.0


Dawn of the Jurassic

By studying rock layers in the cliff where the remains originated, researchers determined that Dracoraptor lived around 200 million years ago. Just prior to this time in Earth's history, a mass extinction event occurred that wiped out over half the species on our planet. It was from this point on that dinosaurs became the dominant land species, with theropods at the top of the food chain.

Prof Paul Barrett, palaeontologist at the Museum, commented on the new discovery:

'Our knowledge of early dinosaurs is based mainly on sites in South America, Africa and Asia, so the discovery of this new Welsh meat-eating dinosaur is both welcome and surprising, especially as Wales has not previously been fertile ground for dinosaur hunters.

'Dracoraptor is one of the best-preserved meat-eating dinosaurs from the early part of the Jurassic Period - not only in Europe, but globally. Its discovery will probably have much to tell us about dinosaur distributions in the wake of the Late Triassic extinctions.'

Fortuitous follow-up

A year after the Hanigan brothers found the Dracoraptor remains, University of Portsmouth palaeontology student Sam Davies located one of the animal's missing feet during a fieldtrip to the very same spot. If he hadn’t, the foot would have been quickly washed away by the tide.

Dr Martill said: 'Sam’s discovery of the foot of Dracoraptor on the Severn estuary really was the most remarkable and serendipitous discovery and it’s wonderful that it will now be displayed with the rest of the specimen in the National Museum Wales, in Cardiff.'