Prominent paleontologists believe a peculiar dinosaur skull unearthed 46 years ago was misidentified and may actually be a missing link that helps tie dinosaurs to birds, The New York Times reported Friday.

The surprising discovery was made earlier this year but formally announced Thursday at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Times said.The skull was found in Montana in 1942 and initially believed to have come from a gorgosaur a large flesh-eating dinosaur of the Cretaceous period.

It never stirred particular scientific interest because it was thought to be only one of many such skulls studied from the period, The Times said.

But, the report said, a recent one-year study showed the skull could not be from a gorgosaur and had to have come instead from an unknown genus that could best be described as a pygmy cousin to Tyrannosaurus rex, the largest of all carnivorous dinosaurs.

Tyrannosaurus rex grew to a length of 50 feet and weighed 6 tons.

The newly established relative designated Nanotyrannus by the team of paleontologists who re-evaluated the skull would have been about 17 feet long and weighed 1,000 pounds.

Dr. Robert T. Bakker, the University of Colorado professor who challenged the original labeling of the skull, said his discovery means modern science may have found a genus of dinosaur that is closer to the bird kingdom than any other.

The report said many paleontologists have believed for years that dinosaurs never entirely died out but merely evolved into birds. And the new genus, if Bakker and his two colleagues are correct, could provide the link between the bird world and dinosaurs.

"We found that this animal was much more like a tyrannosaur than a gorgosaur," Bakker said.