Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Eye Of Sauron

Many people will have seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or read the description of the Eye of Sauron: 'like the eye of a huge cat, wreathed with flame, filled with hate, and ringed in darkness.' This ever watchful sentinel stood proud at the top of a black stone tower, looking out over the barren ash fields of the dismal land of Mordor.

The name Sauron is synonymous with evil. Now it has been used as part of the scientific name of a newly discovered species of dinosaur: Sauroniops pachytholos.

A Moroccan fossil dealer acquired a fragment of skull from local collectors near Taouz. It was bought by an Italian palaeontologist who later donated it to the Museo Paleontologico di Montevarchi. The rocks it came from were 95 million years old and the similarities of the fragment to the bones of other dinosaurs allowed researchers to identify the fossil as coming from an unknown species of tyrannosaurid.

The piece itself was part of the orbital bone which runs along the edge of the eye, and it was this which led to its unusual name. 'The idea of a predator that is physically known only as its fierce eye reminded me of Sauron,' said Andrea Cau, from the Museo Geologico Giovanni Capellini in Bologna, Italy.

The skull fragment of Sauroniops pachytholos, its position
in the skull of the creature and a size comparison to the
cranium of a human 
The genus name simply translates as 'the Eye of Sauron' and the species name refers to the thick, rounded roof of the skull. It is possible that this feature was some kind of display during the mating season. If this is the case, it may also have provided the dinosaur with protection during battles to establish dominance. Such a morphological adaptation can be found in herbivorous dinosaurs who are believed to have engaged in similar rutting behaviour.

During the Mesozoic era, Africa was covered in vast, lush river deltas. The diversity of different species of herbivore created a haven for predators. Sauroniops pachytholos evolved towards the end of this, in a world of giant crocodiles and drying lakes. Indeed, any predator worthy of the name of an ancient and cruel tyrant would have thrived in the harsh conditions of prehistoric Africa.