Lizard beats dinosaur in two-legged race

Dinosaurs were not the first animals to run on two legs - scientists report that a lithe lizard that lived nearly 300 million years ago beat them in the evolutionary race.

The newly-discovered biped, Eudibamus cursoris, was a reptile unrelated to the later dinosaurs.

Scientists unearthed a well-preserved fossil of the 26cm long creature from a German quarry. Writing in the journal Science, they said it appeared to be the earliest known four-legged vertebrate to walk upright.

Other bipeds are not to have emerged for at least a further 60 million years.

Eudibamus's skeletal structure suggests that it could run swiftly, probably standing up on its toes, with its forelimbs swinging in a pendulum-fashion.

This is similar to the posture adopted by running humans, said the US, Canadian and German scientists.

When moving slowly, the creature probably used all four legs. But even on four legs it would have stood out from other animals alive at the time which had a sprawling, arms-and-legs-akimbo, gait.

Eudibamus had relatively short forelegs and long lower limbs, as well as unusually extended feet and a long, whip-like tail - all evidence of bipedal ability.

The reptile's tail could have served as a rudder, compensating for changes in the animal's centre of gravity during upright motion, said the scientists.

Other signs of bipedalism could be seen from the arrangement of the creature's hip, knee and ankle joints.

One of the researchers, Robert Reisz, from the University of Toronto in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, said: "This find is fascinating because it confirms that bipedalism is an innovation that has happened several times. It happened in some dinosaurs, and their bird descendants, and it happened in mammals, so it must be a good idea in terms of evolution."

Why Eudibamus needed to be so speedy is something of a mystery, however. The creature's teeth indicate that it was a plant eater, so it would not have needed to chase prey.

The scientists think it probably learned to run on two legs in order to sprint away from predators.

Recent excavations at the quarry near the village of Tambach-Dietharz in Thuringia, central Germany, have uncovered a fossil of a small meat-eater that may have preyed on Eudibamus.

Friday 3rd November 2000.

Archive date: 11-11-00
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