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The first large raptor to ever be discovered in the UK has been described as a new species.
Found on the Isle of Wight, Vectiraptor greeni is suggested to have used its strength to ambush and overwhelm prey larger than itself as they traversed Europe during the Cretaceous Period.
A stockier relative of the Velociraptor has been described from the Isle of Wight, where it would have roamed ancient forests 125 million years ago.
The fossils of Vectiraptor greeni were discovered on one of the island's beaches over 20 years ago, but scientists have now discovered that they represent an entirely new species. It is the first large raptor to be found in the UK, and is thought to have been a hunter of smaller and younger dinosaurs.
Dr Nick Longrich, the paper's lead author, says, 'There's an extraordinary diversity of dinosaurs known in England in the Cretaceous, and even after more than a century of study, we continue to find new species.
'Although palaeontologists have been studying these dinosaurs for a long time, it's hard going. We have to wait for the sea cliffs to fall and expose bits of bone, or for the waves to wash them out of the rocks. This means that even after two centuries, we're still piecing together our picture of English dinosaurs.'
The description of V. greeni was published in Cretaceous Research.
The bones were found in layers of a rock formation that is part of the Wealden Group, which runs under the Isle of Wight and large parts of southern England.
These rocks are rich in fossils, and over the years have provided many dinosaurs previously unknown to science. One of the most famous is Baryonx walkeri, which was named by Museum scientists in the 1980s after being discovered in Surrey.
More recently a close relative of Iguanadon, Brighstoneus simmondsi, was found on the Isle of Wight, while two spinosaurs named the 'riverbank hunter' and the 'hell heron' were also uncovered. Some of the bones of these three species were uncovered by amateur palaeontologists before being described earlier this year by Museum PhD student Jeremy Lockwood.
Two other amateur palaeontologists, Mick Green and Nick Chase, were involved in the discovery of V. greeni. Mick discovered two of the bones in 2004, with a third was collected by Nick shortly afterwards, when storms eroded away the rock they had been contained within.
PhD student and co-author Megan Jacobs says, 'This little dinosaur also serves as an excellent example of the importance of amateur fossil collectors, and how working with them can produce important scientific research, which would otherwise not be possible.'
While they may have been discovered at different times, they were found within metres of each other and share common features and were preserved in a similar way. This has convinced the scientists that they are from the same individual, rather than separate specimens.
Though only the three bones survive, representing two vertebrae and part of the hips, they were different enough from any other known species for scientists to describe a new species. The species' genus was named for the Isle of Wight, while its species name refers to Mick.
'The bones are thick-walled and massive. It clearly didn't hunt small prey, but animals as large or larger than itself,' says Dr Longrich. 'This was a large, and very heavily constructed animal.'
The scientists believe that V. greeni was a dromaeosaurid, the group of dinosaurs known commonly as raptors. These reptiles were specialist hunters with sharp claws and teeth that were likely covered in feathers.
The most well-known member of the group is the Velociraptor, made famous by the Jurassic Park films although much smaller in real life. It is thought to have been quite an agile predator, hunting small prey as well as scavenging on the remains of larger animals.
The researchers believe that Vectiraptor may have had a different strategy. Unlike its relative, it is thought V. greeni probably relied more upon its strength to tackle its prey. Its strong arms may also have allowed it to climb trees, perhaps as part of ambushes.
While its remains tell us something about the dinosaur itself, they also give clues about the wider world 125 million years ago. Its bones are most similar to a subset of the dromaeosaurs found in North America, suggesting that the earliest members of the group may have originated there before spreading across what is now Europe to reach the rest of the world.
The researchers suggest that the UK and Europe may have been a 'crossroads' for dinosaurs from Africa, Asia and North America as they moved beyond their original ranges, taking advantage of shallow seas and land bridges to cross continents.
'This dinosaur is incredibly exciting,' Megan says, 'adding to the huge diversity of dinosaurs here on the Isle of Wight, and helping to build a bigger picture of the Early Cretaceous world.'