Researchers in China have unearthed a miniature single-clawed dinosaur that was likely an early relative of the ferocious T. rex and is the only such creature known to have just one finger.

Small animal

The newly named species of theropod, Linhenykus monodactylus, would have been about a metre (three feet) tall and as heavy as a parrot, said the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Michael Pittman of University College London — another member of the team — told the BBC: “You'd see a very small animal, probably below your hip height, with a very small skull. It's not very threatening because its teeth are very small compared to other carnivorous dinosaurs.”— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

Complex evolution

Xu said the discovery showed that the evolution of theropods was more complex than originally thought. Xu is from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Paleoanthropology, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“We think it lived on ants and other small insects. It might also have been the prey of other kinds of dinosaurs in the area,” added Xu.

Most theropods, which were carnivores that gave rise to modern birds, had three fingers per hand, but this one just had a single large claw that it likely used for digging into insect nests, in an odd but evolutionarily useful adaptation.

“Non-avian theropods start with five fingers but evolved to have only three fingers in later forms,” said study co-author Michael Pittman of the Department of Earth Sciences at University College London. “Tyrannosaurs were unusual in having just two fingers but the one-fingered Linhenykus shows how extensive and complex theropod hand modifications really were.”

Vestigial structures

Scientists are not sure why Linhenykus evolved to no longer have his other two digits, but the study theorized that “their disappearance may simply reflect the fact that they were no longer being actively maintained by natural selection.”

Some species had a big finger and two small ones. Experts had surmised that the creatures used the large one to dig with and that it became stronger over time while the smaller ones were not used and were eventually lost.

This sort of thing happened all the time in the history of the wild world, explained co-author Jonah Choiniere from the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

“Vestigial structures, like legs in whales and snakes, may appear and disappear seemingly randomly in the course of evolution,” Choiniere said.

The remains of the dinosaur were dug up near the border between Mongolia and China in rocks of the Upper Cretaceous Wulansuhai Formation, which dates to 84-75 million years ago.

Researchers found a partial skeleton at the site, including vertebral bones, a forelimb, part of a pelvis and almost complete hind limbs. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011 and AFP