Professor discovers Tyrannosaurus Rex ancestor

A discovery made more than halfway around the world is creating splashes at GW.

Professor James M. Clark, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, was part of a team that discovered a fossil of the earliest-known ancestor of the famed Tyrannosaurus Rex during a dig in the Wucaiwan area of northwest China in 2002. The findings were reported in the journal Nature earlier this month.

The dinosaur, discovered by a local laborer working for Clark’s team, is estimated to be about 160 million years old, placing it in the late Jurassic period.

“It’s a good 30 to 40 million years older than any other Tyrannosaur fossil,” said Clark, who has been teaching paleontology at GW since 1995.

The fossil, found in nearly pristine condition, is about three meters long – less than a third the size of its better-known descendent. Unlike any other members of the Tyrannosaur family, the dinosaur sports a crest of bone on its head that scientists think may have been brightly colored. Clark and his team named the dinosaur Guanlong Wuccai, which means “crowned dragon” in Chinese.

Because of the fossil’s primeval nature, Clark hopes that it will provide clues into how the Tyrannosaurus evolved.

He said, “(The fossil) is very primitive, and it gives us some very subtle clues about Tyrannosaur evolution. The thin layer of bone sticking out of its head gives us an idea of the ancestral condition of the Tyrannosaur.”

Matt Carrano, a paleobiologist with the Smithsonian Institution, agreed that Clark’s find is of great importance to the field.

“It tells us that the Tyrannosaur was around a lot longer than previously thought,” he said. “We’re getting closer and closer to discovering the original ancestor.”

Clark became involved in the Wucaiwan project during his trips to Mongolia as a researcher with the American Museum of National History. Every trip included a layover in Beijing, where he became acquainted with Professor Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.

Xing encouraged Clark to join him in exploring Wucaiwan. After surveying the area in 2000, Clark agreed to participate in the dig.

“I was amazed at how much no one had ever looked at,” Clark said.

Since then, Clark has undertaken several expeditions to the area and uncovered hundreds of fossils. Along with the Tyrannosaur discovery, he has published papers on his discoveries of an ancient crocodile, a pterodactyl and the geology of the dig site.

Despite his recent successes, Clark has certainly not finished his work, and he plans to continue his trips to Wucaiwan.

“We’ve got a nice grant from the National Science Foundation to fund us for two more years. There’s still a huge area to explore.”

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