Scientists have discovered the fossil of a 125-million year old dinosaur in Spain, Reuters reported.
The fossil was from a medium-sized dinosaur scientists named Morelladon, a four-legged herbivore that measured 20 feet long.
A series of bony spines protruded from its back that formed the sail-like structure that stood about 2 feet tall.
“The sail could help in heat exchange – thermoregulation – focused on releasing excess body heat into the environment, like the ears of the modern-day elephants, or as a storage place for fat to be used during periods of low food supply,” said paleontologist Fernando Escaso of the National University of Distance Education‘s Evolutionary Biology Group in Spain.
The structure also could have helped attract mates, Escaso added.
Sail-like structures appeared periodically in the evolutionary history of vertebrates, often in animal groups not closely related to one another, he added.
Another plant-eating dinosaur called Ouranosaurus with similarities to Morelladon lived about the same time in Africa. The biggest sail-backed creature was Spinosaurus, which lived a semi-aquatic lifestyle 95 million years ago. At 50 feet long and weighing 7 tons, it was the biggest dinosaur predator on record, larger even than Tyrannosaurus rex.
Millions of years before the rise of the dinosaurs, there were other sail-backed creatures, including the carnivorous reptile Arizonasaurus, the amphibian Platyhystrix, and the distant mammal relatives Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus.
Morelladon is known from a partial skeleton including the spines, other vertebrae, pelvic bones, a thigh bone and teeth.
Northeastern Spain during Morelladon’s time alternated between wet and dry periods, with strong temperature variations ranging from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to about 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Escaso said the main predator in the area was Baryonyx, a relative of Spinosaurus, and there were other plant-eating dinosaurs around as well as crocodilians and the flying reptiles called pterosaurs.
The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Image Credit: Carlos de Miguel Chaves