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Europe had very unique plant-eating dinosaurs

A team of paleontologists led by the University of Bath has recently discovered a new species of herbivorous dinosaur on the Isle of Wight in southern England. 

This species, named Vectidromeus insularis, is the second member of the hypsilophodont family found on the Isle of Wight, suggesting that the European continent had its own group of plant-eating dinosaurs that were distinct from those found in North America and Asia.

Hypsilophodont dinosaurs found in Europe

Hypsilophodonts were a group of nimble bipedal dinosaurs that roamed around Europe about 125 million years ago, and lived among iconic species such as early tyrannosaurs, spinosaurs, and iguanodons. The recently discovered fossil had the size of a chicken, but was most likely a juvenile and may have grown much larger.

According to the experts, V. insularis was a close relative of Hypsilophodon foxii, a species of dinosaur first described in the Victorian era. Small and graceful, with bird-like hindlimbs, these dinosaurs were used by famous biologist Thomas Huxley as a proof that birds are related to dinosaurs. 

A distinct species

While H. foxii dinosaurs were also found in Europe on the Isle of Wight, its fossils were discovered higher up in the rocks, suggesting that it was two to three million years younger than V. insularis. Moreover, since the latter’s hip bones were slightly different, it was likely a closely related but distinct species.

“Paleontologists have been working on the Isle of Wight for more than a century, and these fossils have played an important role in the history of vertebrate paleontology, but we’re still making new discoveries about the dinosaur fauna as the sea erodes new fossils out of the cliffs,” said lead author Nicholas Longrich, a paleontologist at Bath.

Evolving ecosystems 

Since the Cretaceous strata on this island are hundreds of meters thick and span several millions of years, the fossils found there are likely evidence of a whole series of evolving ecosystems, each with different types of species.

Amateur collectors 

In finding and describing these new set of fossils, experts from the University of Bath collaborated with researchers from the University of Portsmouth, the Dinosaur Isle Museum in Sandown, as well as with amateur local fossil collectors.

“Working with the amateur community is really important,” said Longrich. “It’s good to have a diverse team; everyone brings something different to the table. These guys have spent their lives collecting and preparing these fossils, they know details about the rock, the geology, and the bone that nobody else does. Everyone sees different pieces of the puzzle.”

“It is utterly bizarre that so many new dinosaurs are being discovered on the Isle of Wight,” added co-author David Martill, a paleontologist at Portsmouth. “Vectidromeus is the seventh new species of dinosaur to be discovered in the last four years. This is all down to the amateur collectors.”

Two distinct species

Although dozens of small herbivorous dinosaurs have been classified over the years as part of the hypsilophodont family, further revisions have resulted in reclassifying most of them, ultimately leaving Hypsilophodon as the only species in this family.

“We had a curious situation where one of the first dinosaur families to be recognized had just one species. And now, we have two,” said Longrich.

“What’s intriguing is that they’re not particularly closely related to anything found in North America, Asia, or the southern hemisphere. We’re still piecing together how all these dinosaurs are related, and how dinosaurs moved between continents. After Pangaea broke up, there was a lot of isolation, leading to different kinds of dinosaurs evolving on each continent.”

Exciting dinosaur discoveries in Europe

“This exciting new find is the latest in a line of new discoveries from the Isle of Wight. We are enjoying an amazing time of collaboration between collectors, researchers, and the museum. New finds are being made on the coast, in private collections, and the museum stores,” said co-author Martin Hunt, the curator of Dinosaur Isle Museum.

The museum’s mission is to try and ensure as many new finds remain here on the Island for the benefit of our Island community; we anticipate this dinosaur to be on display at the museum for the October school holidays.” 

The study is published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

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