Eohupehsuchus brevicollis
December 19, 2014

New platypus-like dinosaur discovered in China

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Researchers have discovered a new species of short-necked, duck-billed marine reptile from the Triassic period that could provide new insight into how life responded following the largest mass-extinction event in history, as well as the future impact of climate change on the planet.

According to Discovery News, a team of scientists from the US and China discovered the 248-million-year-old fossil, which belongs to a unusual group of early Triassic marine reptiles known as hupehsuchians. To date, these creatures have only been discovered in two counties in China’s Hubei Province, and the latest specimen has been named Eohupehsuchus brevicollis.

Writing in Wednesday’s edition of the journal PLOS One, Xiao-hong Chen from the Wuhan Centre of China Geological Survey and colleagues explain that hupehsuchians are known for its modestly-long neck, which tends to have nine or ten cervical vertebrae. The new fossil, however, indicates that Eohupehsuchus brevicollis had a shorter neck, with just six cervical vertebrae.

In a statement, the research team explained that the specimen has an incomplete left forelimb that has broken digits. They suspect the damage occurred pre-burial and was possibly caused by a predator. Furthermore, they found that the new platypus-like species had an unusual skull shape, with a narrow forehead and distinct placement of the parietal bones on top of the head indicating a new species.

“Probably the best living analogue for this marine reptile is the duck-billed platypus from Australia,” said Ryosuke Motani, a professor from the University of California-Davis and one of the authors of the new study. “Although it's a very different animal, it had a skull and beak like a duck without teeth, a very heavily built body with thick bones, and paddles to swim through the water. The details are different, but the general body design looks similar to a platypus.”

Motani also told Discovery News that the new species likely lived on a diet consisting primarily of shrimp and worms – which would explain its duck bill, which the creature would use to sift through sediments on the sea floor. Ossification on the bones suggest that this reptile, which was related to the ichthyosaur, was a fully grown adult and not a juvenile member of its species.

The newly discovered fossil also suggests that creatures living on Earth were able to recover more quickly than previously believed from the end-Permian mass extinction, which took place roughly 252 million years ago. That cataclysmic event, which took place about four million years before this Eohupehsuchus specimen lived, killed off over 90 percent of all life on the planet.

“I was really not expecting Hupehsuchia to be this diverse. The diversity implies that the recovery from the end-Permian mass extinction may have proceeded faster than generally believed,” Motani told Live Science.

He added that learning more about how predators and other animals were affected by the  end-Permian mass extinction and the spell of global warming that accompanied it “is interesting, given that humans are vertebrate predators facing global warming. There are many more fossils that we have excavated, and even more are still in the mountains and hills to be discovered.”