Fossils of ancient creatures doing anything are rare. This one is absolutely unique.
- A new fossil from southern China shows a dinosaur incubating its eggs at the time of its death.
- The find sheds light on oviraptor eating and egg-tending behavior.
- The find will be the focus of further study for some time.
Despite how many of them you can find at a museum, fossils are comparatively rare. They can only form when a plant or animal dies under certain conditions, and without them the remains are typically lost to time. These limitations mean that fossils depicting ancient creatures doing things (like fighting) are extremely difficult to find and are all the more important when discovered.
A new fossil showing a dinosaur's behavior has recently been discovered in Ganzhou, China giving insights into how the oviraptor tended to its eggs and perhaps even shedding light on its development.
Credit: Zhao Chuang / PNSO
The fossil depicts a large dinosaur sitting on a clutch of at least 24 eggs in a manner not unlike that of a bird. At least seven of the eggs contain fossilized embryos with the skeletons of the unhatched oviraptor. The apparently late level of development of these eggs combined with the lack of sediment between the bones and the eggs suggests that the oviraptor may have been incubating its nest when it died.
"Dinosaurs preserved on their nests are rare, and so are fossil embryos. This is the first time a non-avian dinosaur has been found, sitting on a nest of eggs that preserve embryos, in a single spectacular specimen," explains lead author Dr. Shundong Bi.
Co-author Dr. Matthew Lamanna also commented on how rare and exciting this find is:
"This kind of discovery, in essence fossilized behavior, is the rarest of the rare in dinosaurs. Though a few adult oviraptorids have been found on nests of their eggs before, no embryos have ever been found inside those eggs. In the new specimen, the babies were almost ready to hatch, which tells us beyond a doubt that this oviraptorid had tended its nest for quite a long time. This dinosaur was a caring parent that ultimately gave its life while nurturing its young."
The fossil in question, notice the open sections of the blue green eggs.
Credit: Shundong Bi
While this small pile of bones may not look impressive to you, it is a proverbial goldmine of information for paleontologists, shedding light on dinosaur behavior in ways that other fossils can't come close to.
The parent—it is not currently known if it was male or female—clearly had gastroliths, also called "stomach stones," in its abdominal region. Commonly consumed by animals to help grind foods they cannot fully process with their teeth, this find adds the oviraptor to the list of dinosaurs that used these stones as part of their digestion.
The different development levels seen in the fossilized embryos imply that the eggs might not all have hatched at the same time. This is a known occurrence for some birds, but before now, it was thought that this evolutionary development occurred too late for any dinosaur nest to feature it.
The researchers also examined oxygen isotopes in the remains and discovered that the eggs must have been kept at high temperatures typical of the incubation process. This further suggests that the parent was incubating the eggs as a bird does and keeping them at a necessary temperature rather than merely protecting them from an external threat, as a crocodile does.
While finding a dinosaur sitting on some eggs might not be the most exciting example of an activity-depicting fossil there is, the information that scientists can gather from it on the birth, life, and potentially the death of these animals will make this find an important one for years to come.
A rare titanosaur embryo was discovered with its skull preserved in 3 dimensions.
- Researchers have uncovered what the facial features of a baby titanosaurus embryo looked like using cutting-edge imaging technology.
- This in the first-ever discovery of a 3D embryonic titanosaurian sauropod skull.
- The embryo reveals that titanosaur babies had binocularly focused vision in the front of the head rather than on each side, retracted openings on their snout, and a single horn in the front of their head.
Researchers have uncovered what the facial features of a baby titanosaurus looked like in the first-ever discovery of an almost completely intact embryonic titanosaurian sauropod skull.
Kundrát et al., Current Biology, 2020
About 20 years ago, a dinosaur egg was illegally smuggled into the United States from Argentina. Unbeknownst to the egg-runner, it contained one of the most exquisitely preserved skulls of a dinosaur embryo ever found. (The egg has since been returned to Argentina.)
"The preservation of embryonic dinosaurs preserved inside their eggs is extremely rare," said John Nudds, study co-author and palaeontology professor at The University of Manchester, in a statement. "Imagine the huge sauropods from 'Jurassic Park' and consider that the tiny skulls of their babies, still inside their eggs, are just a couple of centimetres long."
The embryo comes from a group of dinosaurs named titanosaurian sauropods, who are known for their long necks and tails, and tiny heads. While their species also lay claim on the largest terrestrial animal ever known to have existed, they start off small enough to fit inside an egg roughly the size of that of an ostrich. The uncovered titanosaur skull is about the size of a table grape.
Understanding the species origins may give scientists a better idea of how they grew and developed. But the task hasn't been easy. Twenty-five years ago researchers struck a bonanza when they uncovered a Cretaceous-era nesting ground of these dinosaurs in Patagonia — a site where titanosaurian sauropods once laid their eggs 80 million years ago. But unfortunately, the eggs the researchers found in the area were flattened, thus lacking key information only a 3 dimensional skull could give them.
This latest finding, detailed in a paper published last week in the journal Current Biology, is 3-D enough to contain all those revealing details. Including the befuddling facial features that titanosaur babies apparently wore in their first days of life.
Inside the egg
Kundrát et al., Current Biology, 2020
The research team used synchrotron microtomography, a cutting edge imaging technology, to view the embryo's bones, teeth, and soft tissues, like the calcified remains of the baby's brain case and jaw muscles.
While the prehistoric long-necked beasts have always been depicted in their adult forms, the high tech images reveal that the babies actually had some unusual physical traits. They had binocularly focused vision in the front of the head rather than on each side, retracted openings on their snout, and a single horn in the front of their head. The researchers have speculated that the horn may have helped them crack out of their shell at birth and assisted these vulnerable newborns in defending themselves. There is currently no evidence of parental care in this dinosaur species, so the baby titanosaurus would have likely been fending for itself for food and protection.
"You could call it a unicorn baby dinosaur, because it has a single horn on its head. But unlike the mythical unicorn, where the horn is on the forehead, this dinosaur has a small bumpy horn at the tip of its snout," University of Edinburgh vertebrate paleontologist Stephen Brusatte, who wasn't involved in the new study, told the New York Times. "This little embryo is one of the cutest dinosaurs I've seen, and at the same time, one of the weirdest looking."
As the dinosaur matured, its head and face would have morphed into the features we imagine them as today; their vision likely changed as their eyes shifted laterally to the sides of the head. Their snout and face may have grown faster than their braincase to get rid of the horn. This is all speculation, of course, as more examples are needed.
"We expect that the specimen will become one of the most important fossils in the study of reproduction and development of the gigantic quadrupedal dinosaurs," said Martin Kundrát in an email to CNN, study author and head of the PaleoBioImaging Lab at Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Slovakia.
Though the researchers acknowledge that it is possible that they stumbled upon an entirely new species, the embryo is the most similar to Tapuiasaurus — a titanosaurus dinosaur that lived in Brazil between 66 million and 100.5 million years ago.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Fossils depicting animals in action are very rare.
- A fossil of a prehistoric ant hunting has recently been discovered.
- Fossilization is rare, so depictions of activities like hunting are hard to come by.
- Other fossils show us how dinosaurs hunted, fought, and died.
Any animal with the name "hell ant" is going to be freaky. Now, thanks to a one-in-a-million chance find, we know how exactly how strange the hell ant was.
The infernally named insect has been extinct since the cretaceous period and has long puzzled paleontologists with its curiously shaped mandibles. Now, thanks to the discovery of a hunk of amber containing both a hell ant, or Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri for the Latin inclined, eating an ancient cockroach.
Unlike nearly all currently existing insects, the hell ant has mandibles that open up and down rather than left and right. While scientists had speculated that this strange bug used its lower mandible to clamp prey to the horn-like upper mandible, it is only with this fossil's discovery that we can know that for sure. According to Science Alert, this is the first time we've found a fossil of this demon ant eating.
Assistant Professor Phillip Barden of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who authored the study on the fossil, expanded on the significance of the find in Eureka Alert:
"Fossilized behavior is exceedingly rare, predation especially so. As paleontologists, we speculate about the function of ancient adaptations using available evidence, but to see an extinct predator caught in the act of capturing its prey is invaluable. This fossilized predation confirms our hypothesis for how hell ant mouthparts worked ... The only way for prey to be captured in such an arrangement is for the ant mouthparts to move up and downward in a direction unlike that of all living ants and nearly all insects."
The rarity of action shot fossils
Fossilization of any kind is infrequent. While the things that must go right for it to happen vary on the method, a typical dinosaur fossil would have to be buried in minerals conducive to fossilization before too much of it decays or is scattered away.
The odds of this happening are low. The odds of this happening with two animals that were fighting at the time of their death are even lower. However, improbability is not the same as impossibility, and several other fantastic examples of ancient predators engaged in life and death struggles with their prey have been preserved.
The “Fighting Dinosaurs” of Mongolia
By Yuya Tamai from Gifu, Japan - 2014-03-25 13.04.52, CC BY 2.0
One of the more famous fossils of all time is a depiction of a velociraptor fighting a protoceratops. In the above picture, you can see the raptor's slashing claw where the neck of the protoceratops once was and the raptor's forearm caught in the beak of its prey.
Discovered by a Polish-Mongolian team in the seventies, these remains are thought to have been preserved by the rapid collapse of a sand dune onto the battling animals, or by their rapid burial in a sandstorm.
Not only is this fantastic to look at, but it provides us with evidence about how these species of dinosaur behaved that more typical remains cannot offer. For example, while it was commonly supposed that a velociraptor's claw was used to disembowel prey, this scene demonstrates that it was likely used elsewhere. Some have even gone so far as to suggest it wasn't designed to create slashing wounds at all, but instead was used to grab prey.
Montana’s Dueling Dinos
The subject of an extended ownership debate that was only recently settled, this fossil has yet to be seen by the public and has already been built into the stuff of legend.
It depicts a Tyrannosaurs-esque predator locked in combat with a potentially unknown member of the ceratopidae family (that's the group that has horns on their faces, like the eternally loved triceratops). The extended court cases around the ownership of the remains haven't been able to eclipse the find's incredible nature.
In addition to depicting predation, the Tyrannosaurus fossil is nearly complete, making it one of about a dozen near-complete T-Rex fossils.
Clayton Phipps, the discoverer of the fossils, further explained how incredible the find was to Smithsonian Magazine: "There's an entire skin envelope around both dinosaurs," Phipps says. "They're basically mummies. There could be soft tissue inside."
Others are less convinced of the importance of this discovery. John Horner, the paleontologist who dug up the famous T-Rex known as "Sue," dismissed the find as "scientifically useless" due to the lack of data collected at the site by the people who dug it up.
Despite his objections, interest in the fossil remains high, likely due to the aforementioned rarity of such a depiction by a fossil.
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
An interdisciplinary team of scientists has confirmed for the first time that dinosaurs suffered from cancer.
The team made the discovery after reanalyzing a 76-million-year-old fibula, or lower leg bone, that belonged to a Centrosaurus apertus, a four-legged dinosaur that was as tall as a human and about 18 feet long. Paleontologists first discovered the fossilized fibula in 1989, in Alberta, Canada. They observed that the bone was damaged, but assumed it was due to a healing fracture.
After seeing the fossil at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta in 2017, David Evans, the James and Louise Temerty endowed chair of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, and his colleagues suspected the damage was caused by a malignant tumor.
"The cancerous bone is severely malformed, with a massive gnarly tumor larger than an apple in the middle of the bone," Evans told Gizmodo. "In fact, the top half of the bone is missing, and it may have broken in life due [to] the progress of the cancer."
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum
In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.
For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.
Evans et al.
"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a press release. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."
"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."
The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other Centrosaurus apertus, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University
The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.
"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."