Australia’s largest carnivorous dinosaur, dubbed “lightning claw” due to its terrifyingly large talons, has been identified from fossilised bones found in opal in the New South Wales outback.
The dinosaur would have been around 7m in length – larger than the Australovenator, a dinosaur found in Queensland that was previously thought to be Australia’s largest meat-eating ancient beast.
A 25cm claw, part of a forearm, a metatarsal, a rib and parts of a hip and lower leg were discovered by opal miners and handed over to researchers in 2005.
The remains, found near the NSW town of Lightning Ridge, have finally been identified as a new type of dinosaur by a team led by palaeontologist Dr Phil Bell, of the University of New England.
“When I first saw the bones I knew they were important and unique but it’s taken until now to do all our comparisons and find out this is a new dinosaur to science,” Bell told Guardian Australia.
“It was obviously a predator but the key thing about this guy is the giant claws on its hands. These claws compensate for a rather dainty skull and slender jaws, which are unlike the giant skull of a T-Rex, which had a bone crushing bite.
“This dinosaur probably ran down its prey and used its arms like grappling hooks. Its mouth was simply to tear off small pieces of meat.”
The remains studied by Bell are around 110m years old. It is thought the lightning claw dinosaur would have been extinct within three to four million years and did not survive to see the mass extinction of dinosaurs 65m years ago.
“We don’t know what else is out there, whether it faced competition or its environment changed,” Bell said. “It certainly would’ve been replaced by something equally fearsome and equally large, we just haven’t found it yet.”
Bell said Australia is something of an “enigma” to dinosaur-hunting palaeontologists. The continent is covered in rocks older than the time of the dinosaurs meaning there are few spots to find remains – Lightning Ridge is the only place in New South Wales where dinosaur fossils can be found.
“We get tantalising glimpses into ancient ecosystems but there’s certainly new discoveries to be found,” Bell said. “Having a big scary predator dinosaur on your desk is certainly quite nice.”
A large-clawed theropod (Dinosauria: Tetanurae) from the Lower Cretaceous of Australia and the Gondwanan origin of megaraptorid theropods, Gondwana Research, Available online 5 September 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2015.08.004