EDIT: The Welsh theropod has been given the scientific name Dracoraptor hanigani and formally described. You can find the paper here.
Dawn, and the trees seem to crack as the harsh, dry light of the morning rests upon their crumbling bark. The woods are silent except for the slight sound of leaves being blown over by the wind. However, the silence is misleading, for in the crevices of this bleak landscape, life still clings on.
A soft sound is heard, revealing the presence of one animal. The sound comes from the shoreline, where the woods give way to rocky coast and wispy seas. The animal making the sound is a theropod dinosaur, encased in a fluffy coat of feathers for insulation. The animal is small, only a few meters in length, but in this wintry land size is irrelevant to survival.
Only the hardy remain in these woods. The land is frequented by storms which blot out the sun and cause flooding. The chilly waves of these surges almost freeze the landscape, drowning plants and animals and seizing trees for the sea. The trees that do survive are sickly and old. They survive only by their sturdiness. The theropod takes advantage of the old trees, scratching the bark in search of grubs. It might seem as though this dinosaur is eking out a living, but the theropod is in fact very much content with her grub-devouring lifestyle.
Her cheerful disposition is soon broken as another animal of her species bursts out of some nearby bushes and runs towards her. This new animal has a scar across his jaw, seemingly from a previous confrontation. The scarred one leaps toward the other theropod, which in turn runs up a hill to a cliff. The scarred theropod follows and almost manages to rip off the end of the fleeing theropod’s tail. As the scarred one reaches the outcrop, he jumps at the other theropod, but misses. The scarred theropod falls off the rocky outcrop and is sent tumbling down the hill, breaking bones. The scarred one limps off, collapsing soon after. As for the other theropod, a few scratches line her face. Although the fight sent a shot of adrenaline through her body, she goes on about her day as if nothing happened. Such is life in the woods which will one day become Wales.
The Welsh theropod is known from fossils found at Lavernock beach in South Wales. The fossils themselves are extremely precious as the sediment from which they were retrieved usually produces little more than fish teeth.
The story of the collection of the theropod fossils themselves is one of luck. In 2014, Nick and Rob Hanigan were scouring the beaches for fossils when one of them came upon a block containing some of the Welsh theropod’s bones. Soon, both located some more fossil elements and the partial skeleton was retrieved from the beach. It is highly likely that if the brothers had not spotted the fossils on the day they were out on the beach, the bones of the Welsh theropod would have washed out to sea and never collected.
The Welsh theropod is particularly important in terms of when it lived. The rocks its bones were encased in were deposited during the Early Jurassic period, a time when dinosaurs were just starting to become the masters of the land. After the Triassic extinction event, surviving tetrapods such as the dinosaurs and the pterosaurs had the room to diversify. However, comparatively little is known about the dinosaurs which lived during this pivotal age in Earth’s history. The Welsh theropod therefore is greatly important to our understanding of the evolution of dinosaurs during this time (especially theropods) and the changing ecology of theropods as well as other dinosaurs in worldwide ecosystems.
Overall, the Welsh Theropod provides a key glimpse into a time when the dinosaurs were greatly diversifying. The animal’s story is one of luck, both good and bad, which saw its body drift to the bottom of an ancient sea, only to be discovered 200 million years later by two men perusing the shore. This aspect of luck denotes the very time the Welsh theropod was living in: one where the rule of land had become the prize of an evolutionary contest and the theropods were learning how to play their cards right.
*Note: I promise I’ll write about an actual tetanuran next time. I was very fascinated by this particular animal, so I felt the need to share that interest with others. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays!