In what is now the Jiangxi Province of southern China, scientists have discovered something that would make Alan Grant’s jaw drop through the floor: a fossil of a non-avian dinosaur sitting atop a nest of eggs, in which their fossil embryos have been preserved. The scientists say this is the first time a non-avian dinosaur has been found atop its babies. And that the discovery offers a glimpse of how dinosaurs cared for their clutches as they evolved into big birds.
CNN reported on the discovery, which a multinational team of researchers recently described in a paper published in the journal Science Bulletin. According to the paper, recent studies have shown that many avian features evolved in dinosaurs incrementally; prior to the origin of the clade, Avialae, which consists of the only living dinosaurs: the birds.
Shundong Bi/Indiana University of Pennsylvania
“Dinosaurs preserved on their nests are rare, and so are fossil embryos,” co-lead author, Drs. Shundong Bi of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said in a press release. “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,” Bi added.
The researchers estimate the fossil is 70 million years old, placing it in the Cretaceous Period. (Which spans from approximately 145 to 66 million years ago.) It consists of an incomplete skeleton of what is likely an adult oviraptorid—that is, an omnivorous bird-like dino, in the images below—in a bird-like brooding position over a clutch of around 24 eggs.
Zhao Chuang, PNSO
“This kind of discovery—in essence, fossilized behavior—is the rarest of the rare in dinosaurs,” paleontologist and project researcher, Dr. Matt Lamanna, added in the release. “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.”
Not only does the fossil evidence the fact that this “Chicken from Hell” (yes, that’s a nickname for oviraptors) was a caring parent, but, ultimately something more profound. That it clearly gave its life for its young. As well as modern-day science.
Andrew McAfee/Carnegie Museum of Natural History
“It’s extraordinary to think how much biological information is… in just this single fossil,” Bi said. “We’re going to be learning from this specimen for many years to come.”