Remains of the oldest relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex – who walked the earth 230 million years ago – have been unearthed in Brazil.
Named Erythrovenator, the prehistoric beast was about six-and-a-half feet long with razor sharp teeth and claws and bristles.
It is the most primitive of its kind ever discovered.
Palaeontologist Dr Rodrigo Muller, of the Federal University of Santa Maria, Brazil, said: ‘It is one of the first theropods. This is the lineage of scary and carnivorous dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame.’
He added: ‘But Erythrovenator was around almost 150 million years before them. It comes from the dawn of the dinosaur age.’
The discovery sheds fresh light on the evolution of the most frightening land predators that ever lived.
Theropod fossils from the late Triassic are extremely rare.
Dr Muller said: ‘Despite the small size, the animal was an apex predator. It was a fast and vicious hunter, with strong leg muscles.
‘The animal had sharp and blade-like teeth, like other early theropods. We believe its skin had feather-like structures.’
An analysis of the bones showed Erythrovenator was a miniature T-Rex. It also shared traits with Velociraptor and Spinosaurus, one of the dinosaurs more frequently seen in Jurassic Park III.
Dr Muller quipped: ‘You could say it is ‘The Godfather of T Rex.’
T-Rex weighed up to eight tons and reached 40 feet long – about the size of a school bus – from its snout to the tip of its powerful tail.
Erythovenator is believed to ripped lizards and primitive mammals to shreds. It would also have eaten insects.
The fragmented remains, including a thigh bone, which is the longest and strongest in the body, were dug up at a farm in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul.
Its full name Erythrovenator jacuiensis means ‘red hunter from the Jacui’, named after the colour of the fossil and a nearby river.
Dr Muller said: ‘We discovered this site through satellite images in 2014. The rock strata is exposed in the surroundings of a lake.
‘I have since led several expeditions there. The access is not so hard, we can reach the outcrop with our 4×4 pickup truck on dry days.’
The layer of sediment contains a treasure trove of unique fossils. It is a graveyard of animals from the distant past that were previously all unknown.
Dr Muller said: ‘Therefore, Erythrovenator probably comes from a poorly explored horizon, which yields some of the oldest dinosaurs.
‘In addition to this dinosaur, the ‘Niemeyer Site’ yielded several mammalian related animals. Erythrovenator would have preyed on these forerunners.’
Known as cynodonts, they included a wolf-like fanged plant eater called Siriusgnathus, and the smaller, possum sized insectivore Agudotherium.
Earth’s land mass was one supercontinent scientists call Pangaea. Dinosaurs were rare components of the land ecosystems.
They went on to rule the Earth during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, between 201 to 66 million years ago.
Explained Dr Muller: ‘But during their origin and early radiation, dinosaurs were ‘humble’ animals in a world dominated by other ancient reptiles that became extinct at the end of the Triassic.
‘A ‘genealogical’ investigation suggests Erythrovenator is one of the most primitive theropods.
‘Early members are carnivorous animals. Hence, the new dinosaur is a meat eater. It helps us understand how the group evolved.’
Erythrovenator, described in the Journal of South American Earth Sciences, may not have had any predators itself.
Dr Muller said: ‘So far, the only evidence from the site of an animal that may have eaten Erythrovenator is an isolated large tooth. It probably belongs to a big, primitive crocodile.’
He added: ‘This layer provides a window into how dinosaurs got started age. We will continue to explore it to understand the faunal composition.’