New Dinosaur Raptor Found; First In Southern Hemisphere
- Photo of fossil foot of new raptor dinosaur species, Neuquenraptor
argentinus. Photo courtesy of Fernando Novas, Argentine Museum of
by Pam Frost Gorder
Columbus OH (SPX) Feb 28, 2005
Scientists at Ohio State University and the Argentine Museum of
Natural History have identified a new species of raptor dinosaur from
fossils found in Patagonia the very southern tip of South America.
It is the first raptor ever found in the Southern Hemisphere, but
compared to other raptors, Neuquenraptor argentinus wasnt much of a
standout. It was only of average height and weight for its kind,
measured six feet from head to tail, and brandished a razor-sharp claw
for slashing prey.
Now, its bones provide the first uncontroversial evidence that raptors
roamed the prehistoric world beyond the Northern Hemisphere 90 million
years ago, said Diego Pol, a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State.
Before this, the extent of the dinosaurs range wasnt certain.
Pol and Fernando Novas of the Argentine Museum of Natural History
published their finding in the current issue of the journal Nature.
With joint appointments in Ohio State's Mathematical Biosciences
Institute and the Department of Biomedical Informatics, Pol represents
a kind of new species himself. He is one of a growing number of
scientists who are using todays powerful computers to confront grand
challenges in the life sciences.
He spends most of his time developing software to map the genes of
living creatures, from bacteria to humans, to show how different
species are related.
He used similar techniques to study the relationships of the new
raptor. Because fossils don't preserve DNA, Pol mapped the dinosaur's
anatomical and skeletal characteristics to place it on the raptor
Novas discovered the fossils in Patagonia with colleague Pablo Puerta
in 1996. They found fragments of the dinosaur's vertebrae and ribs, as
well as parts of its legs and a left rear foot, complete with the
signature raptor claw.
Since then, scientists from around the world have worked to record all
the data that could be used to identify the dinosaur, such as the size
and shape of its bones and where the muscles and ligaments connected
to them. All in all, they measured 224 separate characteristics.
That may sound like a lot of information, but Pol is accustomed to
working with much larger data sets. He routinely assembles family
trees based on genetic sequences that number in the thousands.
He's working with experts in the Department of Biomedical Informatics,
the Ohio Supercomputer Center, and the University of Tucuman in
Argentina to develop software to sort through those mammoth databases
and find connections between species.
"We can use gene sequences, or any physical characteristic like bones
or muscles, or even behavior. We find the tree structure that is most
compatible with whatever data we have," Pol said.
Once Pol entered the dinosaur data into the software, the final
analysis took only minutes. The conclusion: the bones definitely
belonged to a raptor.
Not only the claw, but also finer details such as the pointed shape of
some of the foot bones provided key proof, he explained.
Neuquenraptor lived 90 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous
period - roughly the same time that the Velociraptor of Jurassic Park
fame and its cousin Utahraptor roamed what are now Asia and North
America. And thats what makes Neuquenraptor so special.
According to current geologic theory, the Earth of 90 million years
ago featured two giant supercontinents - one called Laurasia that
eventually split into Europe, Asia, and North America, and another
called Gondwana that became Australia, Africa, Antarctica, and South
Because Neuquenraptor was found in Patagonia, it must have lived on
Gondwana, Pol said. All other verified species of raptor have been
found on land that was once Laurasia.
"That's what was most striking," Pol said. "Given the geographic
location, you wouldn't expect to find a raptor there. So from the
beginning we knew we had an interesting finding."
Since Gondwana and Laurasia were completely separated by ocean 90
million years ago, the find suggests that a common raptor ancestor
probably roamed both supercontinents before they split apart from an
even larger land mass, Pangea - some 150 million years ago, during the
late Jurassic period.
"Up to now, all known raptor species were exclusive to the Northern
Hemisphere," Pol said. "And they all date to a time way after the
splitting of the two land masses."
Now, he said, scientists can make a more complete map of raptors
biological and geographical history - where they lived, how old the
various species lineages were, and how long ago they diversified from
The scientists named the raptor based on the Patagonian province where
it was found, Neuquén.
Counting Neuquenraptor, the raptor family tree now has eleven official
branches, including Velociraptor, Utahraptor, and pint-sized
Microraptor. All share a common ancestor with modern birds.
The National Geographic Society and the Agencia de Promocion
Cientifica in Argentina funded Novas research and the fieldwork for
the study. Pols analysis of the fossils was funded by Ohio State.