Paleontologists have recently identified a new member of the raptor family, one that may have had a leg up on its competition: a keen sense of smell.
The newly identified species, Saurornitholestes sullivani, was named after the paleontologist, Robert Sullivan, who first discovered the creature's partial skull buried amidst the dusty plains of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in New Mexico, back in 1999. The animal was originally thought to belong to Saurornitholestes langstoni, based on its skull features. That is, until paleontologist Steven Jasinski took a closer look.
Jasinski, who is currently Curator of Paleontology and Geology at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, conducted a comparative analysis of the skull fragments and noticed subtle differences that led to the naming of the new species. Among the differences was an enlarged area on the skull that would house the portion of the brain used for smelling, the olfactory bulb. And what this meant for the small dinosaur was an exceptional sense of smell.
"This feature means that Saurornitholestes sullivani had a relatively better sense of smell than other dromaeosaurid dinosaurs, including Velociraptor, Dromaeosaurus, and Bambiraptor. This keen olfaction may have made Saurornitholestes sullivani an intimidating predator as well," Jasinski says.
The dromaeosaurs, commonly referred to as "raptors," were small, fierce predators that are believed to have hunted in packs. Paleontologists liken them to lions in their predatory behavior, utilizing pack tactics to ambush their prey.
S. sullivani lived about 75 million years ago, along the western shore of the Western Interior Seaway - a shallow ocean that divided North America into western and eastern halves during much of the Cretaceous Period. It stood only 3 feet tall (90 cm) and measured around 6 feet (1.80 m) from snout to tail. And it's this snout that has scientists intrigued.
"It was far and away [a] better smeller than other members of its group, including velociraptor," Jasinski says. "Chances are this would have really helped it track down prey over long, long distances. These guys would have been fast enough that they could have run down anything that they got close to."
S. sullivani brings the number of known raptor species to ten and is the first to be found in the southern United States. The species is described in its entirety in the May issue of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin.