A new dinosaur species from South America has been identified, according to new research by an international team of scientists.
The 200 million year old fossils are from the La Quinta Formation in Venezuela, making this the first dinosaur find in the north of South America.
The species is named Laquintasaura venezuelae, after its location, in a paper published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Bones from at least four Laquintasaura were found together, with individuals ranging in age from three approximately 12 years old.
It is possible they lived in small groups, making it the earliest example of social behaviour in ornithischians, ‘bird-hipped’ dinosaurs, a group which includes species such as Stegosaurus and Iguanodon.
Laquintasaura walked on two hind-legs and was about the size of a small dog, measuring one metre in length and 25 centimetres at the hip.
It is thought to have been largely herbivorous, feeding on ferns, but long curved tips on some of its teeth suggest it might have also eaten insects or other small prey.
The abundant fossils of Laquintasaura are very important because they occur very soon after one of the largest mass extinction events in the history of life.
Dr Richard Butler, of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, is part of the team involved in the research.
He said: "The abundant fossils of Laquintasaura are very important because they occur very soon after one of the largest mass extinction events in the history of life."
"The impact of the extinction may have been to remove other groups of reptiles that were potential competitors of early dinosaurs and create ecological space within which new dinosaur groups could thrive.”
“We often think of the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period in which the dinosaurs met their doom, but this much earlier and less famous mass extinction at the end of the Triassic period may actually have been key to driving the early evolutionary rise of dinosaurs."
Dr Paul Barrett, lead author and palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, said: “It’s always exciting to discover a new dinosaur species but there are many surprising firsts with Laquintasaura.
"Not only does it expand the distribution of early dinosaurs, its age makes it important for understanding their early evolution and behaviour.
‘Laquintasaura lived very soon after the major extinction at the end of the Triassic Period, 201 million years ago, showing dinosaurs bounced back quickly after this event.
"It is fascinating and unexpected to see they lived in herds, something we have little evidence of so far in dinosaurs from this time. The fact that it is from completely new and early taxon means we can fill some gaps in our understanding of when different groups of dinosaurs evolved.’
Sophisticated techniques such as analysing the residual radioactivity of tiny crystals within the rock, leaves little doubt where Laquintasaura fits in the timeline of dinosaur evolution.
Professor Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra, palaeontologist at the University of Zürich, adds: “The early history of bird-hipped dinosaurs is still very patchy as so few of them have been found.
"This early species plays a key role in our understanding of the evolution, not only of this group, but of dinosaurs in general.”
The international team of scientists includes Dr Paul Barrett, lead author, the Natural History Museum, UK, Dr Richard Butler, University of Birmingham, UK, Professor Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra and Dr Torsten Scheyer, University of Zürich, Switzerland, Dr Roland Mundil, Berkeley Geochronology Center, USA and Dr Randall Irmis, Utah Museum of Natural History, USA.