The dinosaur, Laquintasaura venezuelae, is the first to be discovered in northern South America and shares its name with the La Quinta formation in Venezuela where it was found. Measuring up at about a metre long and 25 centimetres tall Laquintasaura would have been about the size of a small dog and was largely herbivorous- though the curve of some of its teeth suggest it might have also feasted on insects and small prey.
Scientists unearthed Laquintasauras tangled together in small groups including juveniles and fully grown adults. The dinosaurs found together probably died at the same time say the scientists which could mean they were living in herds- a complex social interaction so far not seen in this sort of dinosaur until the Late Jurassic around 40 million years later. ‘It is fascinating and unexpected to see they lived in herds, something we have little evidence of so far in dinosaurs from this time,’ says lead author Dr Paul Barrett.
Laquintasaura belongs to the ‘bird-hipped’, or Ornithischia, group of dinosaurs which later gave rise to Stegosaurus. At the moment the other dinosaur group - Saurischia - dominates scientists’ understanding of early dinosaur evolution because they are discovered more often. Bird-hipped dinosaurs in the late Triassic have been considered fairly rare with only three known species. More have been discovered from the Early Jurassic but scientists question the accuracy of the aging of some of these species.
Analysing the residual radioactivity of tiny crystals in the rock means the scientists behind this study can pin down the age of Laquintasaura to the early Jurassic possibly just 0.5 million years after a mass extinction event that wiped out most other species on Earth and marked the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic. ‘Laquintasaura demonstrates unequivocally that, at least locally, ornithischians were relativity abundant after the extinction event,’ says the team, ‘It shows dinosaurs bounced back quickly’.
‘It’s always exciting to discover a new dinosaur species but there are many surprising firsts with Laquintasaura’ said Dr Barrett. The discovery challenges the geographical range scientists thought these dinosaurs could inhabit. Previously ornithischians were thought to live predominantly in the middle-high latitudes in the south of the Pangaea supercontinent but Laquintasaura venezuelae shows dinosaurs were living in areas scientists have thought were inhospitable for such early dinosaurs.