May 7 (UPI) -- Paleontologists have discovered a new relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, the infamous dinosaur predator. Unlike its distant cousin, the new species, Suskityrannus hazelae, stood just three feet tall and stretched nine feet from head to tip of the tail.
The dinosaur remains were originally found by 16-year-old Sterling Nesbit during a dig in New Mexico in 1998. Twenty years later, Nesbit, now an assistant professor in the geosciences department at Virginia Tech, is the lead author on a paper -- published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution -- describing the fossil's identity.
Like its larger relative, the diminutive tyrannosauroid subsisted on meat, hunting and eating mostly small animals. Unlike T. rex, which weighed several tons, S. hazelae tipped the scales at between 45 and 90 pounds. Though less powerful, the small predator would have been rather quick.
During the newly identified species' heyday, some 92 million years ago, the planet was home to some of the largest dinosaur species in history.
"Suskityrannus gives us a glimpse into the evolution of tyrannosaurs just before they take over the planet," Nesbitt said in a news release. "It also belongs to a dinosaurian fauna that just proceeds the iconic dinosaurian faunas in the latest Cretaceous that include some of the most famous dinosaurs, such as the Triceratops, predators like Tyrannosaurus rex, and duckbill dinosaurs like Edmotosaurus."
Analysis of the newly identified fossil helped paleontologists link several smaller, earlier tyrannosauroid species from North America and China with larger species that persisted through the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs.
The bones discovered by Nesbit comprised one of two incomplete fossils -- remains researchers struggled to identify.
"Essentially, we didn't know we had a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex for many years," Nesbitt said.
But over the last two decades, paleontologists have identified a number of other T. rex relatives, shedding new light on the tyrannosaurid family tree, which helped Nesbitt and his colleagues name the miniature predator.