Virginia Tech paleontologist finds, names new 3-foot-tall relative of T-rex

BLACKSBURG, Va. - A new relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex — much smaller than the huge, ferocious dinosaur made famous in countless books and films — has been discovered and named by a Virginia Tech paleontologist and an international team of scientists.

The newly named tyrannosauroid dinosaur – Suskityrannus hazelae – stood roughly 3 feet tall at the hip and was about 9 feet in length, the entire animal only marginally longer than the just the skull of a fully grown Tyrannosaurus rex, according to Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor with Department of Geosciences in the Virginia Tech College of Science. In a wild twist to this discovery, Nesbitt found the fossil at age 16 while he was a high school student participating in a dig expedition in New Mexico in 1998.

In all, Suskityrannus hazelae is believed to have weighed between 45 and 90 pounds. The typical weight for a full-grown Tyrannosaurus rex is roughly 9 tons. Its diet likely consisted of the same as its larger meat-eating counterpart, with Suskityrannus hazelae likely hunting small animals, although what it hunted is unknown. The dinosaur was at least 3 years old at death based on an analysis of its growth from its bones.

The fossil dates back 92 million years to the Cretaceous Period, a time when some of the largest dinosaurs ever found lived.

If you’re wondering how small the arms of Suskityrannus were, Nesbitt and his team are not exactly sure. No arm fossils of either specimen were found, but partial hand claws were found. And, they are quite small. Also not known: If Suskityrannus had two or three fingers.

Two partial skeletons were found. The first included a partial skull that was found in 1997. The second, more complete specimen was found a year later. 

Sterling Nesbitt, courtesy of Virginia Tech

For much of the 20 years since the fossils were uncovered, the science team did not know what they had.

The fossil remains were found near other dinosaurs, along with the remains of fish, turtles, mammals, lizards, and crocodylians. From 1998 until 2006, the fossils remain stored at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, Arizona. After 2006, Nesbitt brought the fossils with him through various postings as student and researcher in New York, Texas, Illinois, and now Blacksburg. He credits the find, and his interactions with the team members on the expedition, as the start of his career.

Funding for Nesbitt and his team’s research into Suskityrannus came from the Discovery Channel, the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences, and the American Museum of Natural History. 

Copyright 2019 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.