Scientists unearth the ‘godfather’ of T-rex — the oldest relative of meat-eating dinosaurs

SANTA MARIA, Brazil — The so-called “Godfather” of the feared Tyrannosaurus rex, which lived 230 million years ago and is the oldest relative of meat-eating dinosaurs, has been unearthed in Brazil.

Erythrovenator jacuiensis preying on a mammalian forerunner in a Triassic landscape from Brazil.

Named Erythrovenator jacuiensis, it was about six and a half feet long with razor sharp teeth and claws. Researchers say the bizarre looking beast was also covered in bristles. It is the most primitive of its kind ever discovered.

“It is one of the first theropods,” notes palaeontologist Dr. Rodrigo Muller, of the Federal University of Santa Maria, Brazil, in a statement. “This is the lineage of scary and carnivorous dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor of ‘Jurassic Park’ fame. But Erythrovenator was around almost 150 million years before them. It comes from the dawn of the dinosaur age.”

The discovery sheds fresh light on the evolution of the most frightening land predators that ever lived. Theropod fossils from the late Triassic are extremely rare.

“Despite the small size, the animal was an apex predator. It was a fast and vicious hunter with strong leg muscles,” says Muller. “The animal had sharp and blade-like teeth, like other early theropods. We believe its skin had feather-like structures.”

How did Erythovenator compare to the T-rex?

An analysis of the bones showed Erythrovenator was a miniature T-rex. It also shared traits with Velociraptor and Spinosaurus – the main monster in Jurassic Park III. “You could say it is ‘The Godfather of T-rex,'” says Muller.

Godfather of T-Rex
The ‘Godfather’ of T. rex who lived 230 million years ago and is the oldest relative of meat eating dinosaurs has been unearthed in Brazil.

The Tyrannosaurus rex weighed up to eight tons and reached 40-feet long – about the size of a school bus – from its snout to the tip of its powerful tail. Erythovenator is believed to have ripped lizards and primitive mammals to shreds. It would also have eaten insects.

The fragmented remains, including a thigh bone, which is the longest and strongest in the body, were dug up at a farm in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Its full name Erythrovenator jacuiensis means “red hunter from the Jacui” after the color of the fossil and a nearby river.

“We discovered this site through satellite images in 2014. The rock strata is exposed in the surroundings of a lake,” says Muller. “I have since led several expeditions there. The access is not so hard, we can reach the outcrop with our 4×4 pickup truck on dry days.”

More exciting prehistoric discoveries

The layer of sediment contains a treasure trove of unique fossils. It is a graveyard of animals from the distant past that were previously all unknown.

“Therefore, Erythrovenator probably comes from a poorly explored horizon, which yields some of the oldest dinosaurs,” explains Muller. “In addition to this dinosaur, the ‘Niemeyer Site’ yielded several mammalian related animals. Erythrovenator would have preyed on these forerunners.”

Known as cynodonts, they included a wolf-like fanged plant-eater called Siriusgnathus, and the smaller, possum-sized insectivore Agudotherium.

Niemeyer site
Niemeyer site where Erythrovenator was discovered.

Earth’s land mass was one supercontinent scientists call Pangaea. Dinosaurs were rare components of the land ecosystems. They went on to rule the Earth during the Jurassic and Cretaceous – 201 to 66 million years ago. “But during their origin and early radiation, dinosaurs were ‘humble’ animals in a world dominated by other ancient reptiles that became extinct at the end of the Triassic,” says Muller. “A ‘genealogical’ investigation suggests Erythrovenator is one of the most primitive theropods. Early members are carnivorous animals. Hence, the new dinosaur is a meat eater. It helps us understand how the group evolved.”

No enemies?

Erythrovenator, described in the Journal of South American Earth Sciences, may not have had any predators itself.

“So far, the only evidence from the site of an animal that may have eaten Erythrovenator is an isolated large tooth. It probably belongs to a big, primitive crocodile,” suggests Muller.

He adds “This layer provides a window into how dinosaurs got started age. We will continue to explore it to understand the faunal composition.”

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.