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China fossil shows bird, crocodile family trees split earlier than thought
Date:5/18/2011

A fossil unearthed in China in the 1970s of a creature that died about 247 million years ago, originally thought to be a distant relative of both birds and crocodiles, turns out to have come from the crocodile family tree after it had already split from the bird family tree, according to research led by a University of Washington paleontologist.

The only known specimen of Xilousuchus sapingensis has been reexamined and is now classified as an archosaur. Archosaurs, characterized by skulls with long, narrow snouts and teeth set in sockets, include dinosaurs as well as crocodiles and birds.

The new examination dates the X. sapingensis specimen to the early Triassic period, 247 million to 252 million years ago, said Sterling Nesbitt, a UW postdoctoral researcher in biology. That means the creature lived just a short geological time after the largest mass extinction in Earth's history, 252 million years ago at the end of the Permian period, when as much as 95 percent of marine life and 70 percent of land creatures perished. The evidence, he said, places X. sapingensis on the crocodile side of the archosaur family tree.

"We're marching closer and closer to the Permian-Triassic boundary with the origin of archosaurs," Nesbitt said. "And today the archosaurs are still the dominant land vertebrate, when you look at the diversity of birds."

The work could sharpen debate among paleontologists about whether archosaurs existed before the Permian period and survived the extinction event, or if only archosaur precursors were on the scene before the end of the Permian.

"Archosaurs might have survived the extinction or they might have been a product of the recovery from the extinction," Nesbitt said.

The research is published May 17 online in Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a journal of Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

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Contact: Vince Stricherz
vinces@uw.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
Source:Eurekalert  

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