Paleontologists have uncovered the fossilized bones of a small meat-eating, birdlike dinosaur in Argentina's Patagonia region similar to creatures that were long believed to have existed only in North America and Asia.
Scientists say the find — bones of the animal's foot — could aid in learning more about the evolution of a family of dinosaurs known as the deinonychosaur, a fleet-footed creature with a long tail first discovered in the United States and Mongolia.
"This is the first time an animal of this kind has been found in South America," said Fernando Novas, a paleontologist at the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences in Buenos Aires. "The discovery shows a great similarity between this particular dinosaur and its northern relatives."
Novas led a team of Argentine scientists who made the discovery while digging in a rocky, mountainous region in western Argentina, a fossil-rich area that has yielded dozens of discoveries of dinosaur remains in recent years.
South American activity
The new dinosaur called "Neuquenraptor argentinus" — after the Argentine province where the discovery was made — likely spanned up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) in length, with a height of 5 feet (1.5 meters), Novas said. It is believed to be a relative of the deinonychosaur.
Other researchers hailed the discovery as further evidence of the growing amount of information about dinosaur activity previously undocumented in South America.
"It's the tip of the iceberg on the diversity of birdlike dinosaurs that was previously unknown in South America," said Luis Chiappe, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country, who has worked extensively in Patagonia but is not associated with the find.
In a public presentation, Novas unveiled a preserved foot of the animal, which included a sickle-clawed foot and is believed to have existed some 75 million years ago.
Artistic renderings attempting to re-create the speciman's appearance showed an animal with long hind legs and a long and slender tail.
Found nine years ago
The fossils were found in 1996 during a dig attempt to remove the remains of another dinosaur.
At the time, the specimen was taken to an Argentine lab, where they were later cleaned, analyzed, and reported on by scientists before their results were released Wednesday.
Details of the find appear in the current issue of the science journal Nature.
An arid and rocky terrain in much of Patagonia, the windswept area ecompassing a large swath of Argentina's southern and western regions, has allowed for the preservation of many dinosaur remains, making it one of the best locations for fossil hunting in South America, scientists say.
The largest plant-eating dinosaur ever found — the argentinosaurus — was discovered in the area in 1993, and the largest carnivorous dinosaur, the giganotosaurus, was found there a year later.