An astonishing fossil of an oviraptor has been found crouching over two dozen eggs containing fossilized embryos inside, with 7 containing “babies” within hours of hatching.
Found in Ganzhou in southern China, the fossil is unprecedented in history and contains not only a picture of the animal and its offspring, but of its own behavior.
China has produced some of the world’s most important discoveries in the field of paleontology, and this oviraptorosaur, from a group of bird-like theropod dinosaurs that thrived in the Cretaceous period, turned out to be an absolute diamond.
The soils of China contained the first specimens linking dinosaurs to birds and the first evidence of arboreal dinosaurs. The new fossil discovery seems to confirm that this species was one of those that incubated, sitting on its eggs as an incubation method.
“This kind of discovery, essentially fossilized behavior, is the rarest of the rare in dinosaurs,” says paleontologist Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (ID).
“Although some adult oviraptorids have been found in their egg nests before, embryos have never been found within those eggs.”
The lack of contextual evidence until now had prevented paleontologists from being sure that birds, from their ancestors 70 million years ago, always incubated their young, but several factors in this finding make that conclusion highly likely.
This perfect clutch revealed so much
Preserved with only a few millimeters of space between the fossilized bones and the eggs, almost no sediment has managed to squeeze between them, suggesting that the dinosaur’s father was incubating them.
In addition, the oxygen isotopes measured in the embryos put their temperature approximately the same as that of the father’s bones.
“This dinosaur was a loving father who finally gave his life while caring for his young,” Explain Lamanna, who was on the research team with the lead authors, Drs. Shundong Bi, from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Xing Xu, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. Their study was published in the Science bulletin, with CMNH science artist Andrew McAfee producing illustrations for the newspaper.
Other interesting discoveries were the presence of complete dinosaur skeletons within the egg material, evidence of the oviraptor’s diet, and the fact that not all eggs were hatched at the same stage of development – another hallmark of birds.
Synchronous hatching is hard work and, in the order of birds, it is done with the help of both parents alternating the incubation tasks. It is believed to have originated much further down the evolutionary line, as today it is a behavior demonstrated in only a few specific birds.
Oviraptor may have walked away of simultaneous hatching much earlier than scientists expected. The sex of the fossilized oviraptor is yet to be confirmed and will offer a lot to mystery.
In the dinosaur’s stomach, small stones were clues to determine the content of its diet. Today, birds, like turkeys, have gizzards, a primitive organ that stores gravel, allowing birds to pass seeds and other hard or fibrous materials through them to aid in digestion.
“It is extraordinary to think how much biological information is captured in this single fossil”, He says paleontologist Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.
“We will learn from this specimen for many years.”
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