January 23, 2012
Imagine a dinosaur as massive as Apatosaurus sitting on a nest. It doesn’t really work, does it? We know without a doubt that these large sauropod dinosaurs laid eggs, but there is no conceivable way that the gargantuan dinosaurs could have sat on their grapefruit-sized eggs without crushing them all. There must have been some other way that the eggs could have been kept safe and warm enough to develop properly. One special site in Argentina suggests that some sauropods had a geological solution to the problem.
Two years ago, paleontologists Lucas Fiorelli and Gerald Grellet-Tinner announced the discovery of a unique nesting site that sauropods returned to multiple times. During a stretch between 134 million and 110 million years ago, expectant mother sauropods came to this site to deposit clutches of up to 35 eggs within a few feet of geysers, vents and other geothermal features. This basin held naturally heated dinosaur nurseries.
A new, in-press paper about the site by Fiorelli, Grellet-Tinner and colleagues Pablo Alasino and Eloisa Argañaraz reports additional details of this site. To date, more than 70 clutches of eggs have been found across an area spanning more than 3,200,00 square feet in a section of rock about four feet thick. Rather than focusing on the habits of the dinosaurs, however, the new study fills out the geological context of the place as a possible explanation for why the dinosaurs came here.
On the basis of geological features and minerals, the authors suggest that the site may have resembled the Norris Geyser Basin of present-day Yellowstone National Park. A series of underground pipes and tubes fed geysers, hot springs and mud pots scattered across an ancient terrain crossed by rivers. The fact that the egg clutches are consistently found near the heat-releasing features is taken by Fiorelli and co-authors as an indication that parent dinosaurs were seeking out these spots to lay their eggs. And this site isn’t the only one. Fiorelli and collaborators also point out that similar sauropod egg sites have been found in South Korea.
Exactly what happened to preserve so many nests is not immediately clear, but the eggs were buried in sediments at least partly produced by the surrounding geothermal features. The eggs were eroded and thinned by the acidic nature of the entombing sediment. Some eggs were destroyed by these and other processes, but others held out and became preserved in place.
Not all sauropod dinosaurs selected such sites for nests. Particular populations near geothermal features may have received a benefit from the natural heat, but how did other populations and species far removed from these hot spots lay and protect their nests? We still have much to learn about how baby sauropods came into the world.
Fiorelli, L., Grellet-Tinner, G., Alasino, P., & Argañaraz, E. (2011). The geology and palaeoecology of the newly discovered Cretaceous neosauropod hydrothermal nesting site in Sanagasta (Los Llanos Formation), La Rioja, northwest Argentina Cretaceous Research DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2011.12.002
June 30, 2010
Even though they grew to be some of the largest animals ever to walk the earth, sauropod dinosaurs started off small. From numerous nesting sites found all over the world it appears that gravid female sauropods, rather than putting all their effort into laying a few enormous eggs, created large nests of numerous, relatively small eggs. But why they selected particular nesting sites has long been a mystery. Now, in the journal Nature Communications, paleontologists Gerald Grellet-Tinner and Lucas Fiorelli provide evidence that nesting female sauropods picked at least one site based upon its natural heat.
In northwestern Argentina’s La Rioja Province lies a bed of white Cretaceous rock called the Los Llanos Formation. Within that formation, paleontologists have found numerous clutches of eggs at Sanagasta. The eggs are very similar to those of sauropod dinosaurs found elsewhere in Argentina, but the focus of the new study is not so much the eggs as the environment they were deposited in. In one particular area, designated sub-site E, the egg clutches are found dispersed three to ten feet away from geysers, vents, and other hydrothermal features which were active between 134 and 110 million years ago—that is, the eggs were laid in a naturally-heated nursery incubated between 140 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit. During the time the dinosaurs occupied this site, it must have looked somewhat reminiscent of some areas of Yellowstone National Park, but with sauropods wandering among the hot springs instead of elk and bison.
Although this is a wonderful discovery, the fact that these dinosaurs came back to the hydrothermally-active site again and again is not unusual. Some ground-nesting birds, such as the Polynesian megapode, seek out sites warmed by volcanic activity to create their nests, and so it seems that sauropod dinosaurs, too, were very selective about where they created their nests. With this in mind, paleontologists can take a closer look at other nesting sites around the world for clues as to why certain sites were “hot spots” for dinosaur nests.
Gerald Grellet-Tinner & Lucas E. Fiorelli (2010). A new Argentinean nesting site showing neosauropod dinosaur reproduction in a Cretaceous hydrothermal environment. Nature Communications, 1-8 : 10.1038/ncomms1031